Everest season is about to start, and this daunting mountain demands that you push yourself beyond comprehension. For most, to summit this mountain requires a combination 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,” he says.
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, having struggled through many of the same emotional challenges that those with spinal cord injuries face.
RedBull.com: How do you view being an inspiration to people around the world?
Sean Swarner: People thank me and I respond that I’m grateful for the life I have and thankful for doing what I can with it. My goal is to create this upside-down mountain or upside-down triangle where I inspire a handful of people, and those people go on to do something crazy and inspire other people, and they inspire other people and so on. It’s about sharing the good in the world.
What drove you to start setting these adventurous goals?
It was a combo of things, but the number one goal is always to show people that a guy who was once given 14 days to live, placed in a coma for a year and has one functioning lung is now out there doing amazing things, and you can do anything you put your mind to. At the same time maybe it’s also a way to show to myself that I’m still not dead.
What was your motivation to get involved with the Wings For Life World Run as an ambassador?
My story is about cancer, but it reaches out beyond cancer and inspires people of all walks of life. 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.
About the Wings for Life World Run
Wings for Life World Run donates 100% of the entry fees directly to funding spinal cord injury research. The run takes place simultaneously in 34 locations around the globe on May 8, 2016, including US venues in Santa Clarita, California, and Sunrise, Florida. Those who cannot travel to those locations but still want to participate can do so anywhere in the world via the Selfe Run app. Please register today and run for those who can't.