Meet the Explorer’s Grand Slamming cancer survivor

After beating cancer twice, American Sean Swarner is tackling the Seven Summits and both Poles.
Cancer survivor and Sean Swarner and his team stand atop Denali, one of the Seven Summits
Cancer survivor explorer Sean Swarner atop Denali © Sean Swarner
By Mandy Burkholder

You might not have heard of Sean Swarner before, but his story is guaranteed to stick with you. A two-time cancer survivor and Wings For Life World Run Ambassador, Swarner's story began as a young child surviving the impossible: cancer.

Years later and missing a lung, Swarner is redefining what it means to overcome challenges. The professional adventure-seeker, who has previously summited Everest and annually climbs Kilimanjaro, will attempt a feat that no one else in his position has ever done – complete the Explorer's Grand Slam.

The endeavor, comprised of climbing the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each continent – Everest, Aconcagua, Elbrus, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Puncak Jaya and Vinson) as well as visiting both Poles, has never seen a cancer survivor accomplish its ferocious demands.

On April 1, Swarner set off on the final leg of the feat to complete his Explorer's Grand Slam, leaving for the North Pole, and we caught up with him just before he left.

Cancer survivor and explorer Sean Swarner does a headstand at South Pole after reaching the most Southerly place on Earth
Sean Swarner does a headstand at South Pole © Sean Swarner

What have you been up to?
Well, I ran up the Empire State Building stairs recently, which was fun. It's funny too because I mentioned it to somebody and they were like, 'What? You know they have escalators and elevators!'.

Tell us more about the Explorer's Grand Slam. Did you originally decide to complete it? Or has the process been an evolution?
This initially started with Everest, that's when I got bit by the climbing bug. Then I did the Seven Summits. And then I thought, 'Let's go for the gusto. Let's complete the Explorer's Grand Slam'. I did the South Pole in January of 2015, then decided, 'Alright, let's keep going!' Now I'm going to visit Santa Claus in April.

Sean Swarner pictured atop a mountain
Sean Swarner takes a moment a top a mountain © Sean Swarner

What does that journey entail?
I'll fly to Svalbard, Norway, and from there we'll fly north to a temporary ice camp. Then we'll start trekking north. It's going to be several weeks of, "Which way should we go today? Well, let's go north!"

Everything will be in our sleds – mine is going to weigh anywhere from 65–90kg. We've got two cameramen going, a guide and two more people from the UK. So, three tents and six people total. And that's not to mention the firearms we'll bring for protection from polar bears.

What kind of training have you been doing to prepare for your journey?
As we speak, I'm dragging two tires behind me to simulate the sled. I have two SUV tires that I drilled a hole in and looped a rope through. It's really weird looking, but it's an amazing way to train. Everybody who drives by is like, 'what the hell is wrong with this guy?'

I'm currently working out four times a day. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I do a P90X workout and in the afternoon I do arms and shoulders. And then I do 250 single-leg squats off of my couch for each leg. Then I'll do 100 squats and a core workout after that.

On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, it's yoga in the morning and then dragging tires or running in the afternoon. And plenty of stretching in between.

What does representing people affected by cancer mean to you during these impressive feats, and who will you be fighting for as you complete the Explorer's Grand Slam?
Every once in a while, I get this wave of survivor's guilt, which puts everything into perspective for me. It helps me appreciate life so much more. It's an honor and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities I've had. There are so many people who are too sick to do this stuff, who can't get out and pull tires. Who can't put themselves through crazy situations like this.

We're currently looking for people to take with us on a flag. Every mountain I've gone up (it started with Everest), I've taken a flag that has the names of people touched by cancer. And I want to bring these people with me. It's a global epidemic now; it's not just me who has gone through it. Everybody is fighting for their lives.

I'm trying to unite the whole world of cancer into one big family. Here's a guy who's had two cancers, who's going to complete something that no one like him has done before. And it's not just for me, it's for everyone who's been touched by cancer.

© Sean Swarner

What's next for you after you return from the North Pole?
I'm getting my certification as a performance coach and putting together Adventure Seminars, which are essentially extreme adventures that will help people accomplish what they want to do.

My tagline is 'redefine impossible', so it takes from my experience having doctors tell me that climbing Everest with only one lung was impossible. I plan on taking clients on adventures in the wild to overcome challenges which will, in turn, help them in their daily lives. Our beta test starts in June.

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