Everest season is about to start, and this daunting mountain demands that you push yourself beyond comprehension. For most, to summit this mountain is a display of discipline, focus, whittling your body into its burliest form, and luck. But for Sean Swarner, the two-time cancer survivor once told he had two weeks to live, this summit was about more than just pushing past physical limits and standing on the highest peak in the world. It was about hope.
As a 13 year old, Swarner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. “My friends were out having a great time with their lives and I was fighting for mine,” says Swarner. “I was 13 going on 40.” Treatment worked, but at age 16, 20 months into remission, he was diagnosed with a second, unrelated cancer called Askin’s sarcoma. “As far as I know, I am the only person ever to be diagnosed with both cancers,” says Swarner.
He started round after around of chemotherapy, a bombardment of chemical cocktails that led doctors to place Swarner in a medically induced coma during his treatments, which continued on and off for nearly a year. Swarner went into remission a second time (after losing one of his lungs), but those months of living in bed, at times too weak to walk, were defining for how he viewed life from then on.
It wasn't until he moved to Florida to pursue a master’s degree that he took a look at how cancer had affected him. “I came up with this crazy idea of climbing the highest mountain in the world with one lung,” says Swarner. “I figured if someone who has had cancer climbed Everest, why not me and why not for the right reasons?”
He took a sabbatical from his studies and with only eight months to prepare, he moved to Estes Park, Colorado. “I would go up and down the 14ers with 100 pounds of rocks in my pack just to get my body in shape,” says Swarner.
When he arrived at Everest base camp, the elevation was the highest his body had ever been. “Every step I took was a personal record in altitude,” he says. “It drove me to keep climbing and to keep going.”
Swarner summited in May 2002 and went on to climb the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each of the seven continents) and trek to the South Pole. He plans to make another trek, this time to the North Pole, in 2017. When he reaches this last goal he will become one of just a handful of elite climbers to complete this feat, known as the Explorer’s Grand Slam.
Now a motivational speaker and founder of the Cancer Climber Association, Swarner lives to inspire people with his drive, positivity and perseverance to survive. He's also an official Wings for Life World Run ambassador, and has struggled through many of the same emotional challenges that those with spinal cord injuries face.
"My story is about cancer, but it reaches out beyond cancer and inspires people of all walks of life," Swarner says. "Being involved with the Wings For Life World Run is amazing because it brings people and companies together for a good cause. It’s about giving people hope and doing something for someone else."