At age 13, Sean Swarner was diagnosed with advanced stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma and given three-months to live. He survived. At age 16, doctors diagnosed him with advanced Askin’s sarcoma, a tumorous cancer that kills 94 of every 100 people diagnosed. This time doctors gave him only 14 days. Not only did Swarner survive, he thrived. He went full bore into weight lifting, swimming, running and, eventually, mountaineering as part of his recovery process.
His philosophy for survival? Hope. “Nothing is as important to a cancer patient as Vitamin H,” says the 34 year-old. He points to a quote he has posted on the homepage of his website (seanswarner.org) to sum it up: “The human body can survive for about 30 days without food. The human condition can sustain itself for about three days without water, but no human alive can survive for more than 30 seconds without hope, because without hope we truly have nothing.”
To instill hope in other cancer patients and survivors, in 2001 Swarner founded CancerClimber (cancerclimber.org). He has since climbed the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent—all with the use of just one lung. His book Keep Climbing (Atria, 2008) chronicles his life story and he was recently named one of Denver’s hottest bachelors by 5280 magazine. Next on the agenda? He plans to be the first person to complete the so-called Adventure Grand Slam: the Seven Summits, plus treks to the North and South poles.
We caught up with Swarner, who lives in Boulder, between training sessions for his third climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, where he’s leading a trip in July.
What projects are you focusing on most with CancerClimber?
CancerClimber used to give out adventure grants [10 total] to cancer patients hoping to complete some great outdoor adventure. But we’ve changed focus and teamed up with Vehicle for Change (vehicle4change.org) to raise funds for a mobile cancer-awareness project. Starting this summer, we plan to tour around the country for three or four months, visiting schools and hospitals along with cancer patients and survivors to raise money. The plan is to raise enough money to buy semi trucks for a permanent rolling camp for cancer awareness.
Was completing the Seven Summits anticlimactic so to speak? What are your athletic goals these days?
Each of the Seven Summits was an experience of a lifetime. I left signed flags on all seven peaks that read: “Dedicated to all those affected by cancer in this small world. Keep climbing!” All my projects are about raising awareness and giving hope, which is what gets me excited—connecting with people and inspiring them. When I did the Ford Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, I had a smile on my face the entire way. I finished [the 2.4-mile swim, 100-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run] in under 12 hours. It was a slog, but I loved every minute of it! True adventure.
What has led you to push your body athletically?
I’ve always been fortunate in athletics. And I’ve always enjoyed pushing myself and challenging my body. Anything seems possible to me after surviving two rare cancers, and I think exercise helped me physically and psychologically through treatment. I grew up in Ohio camping and loving the outdoors. In college, my friends nicknamed me “Nature Boy.” Today, I do what I can to give people something I never had when I was battling my cancers—hope. If I can do what I do with one lung, others can do much more.
Was exercise a part of you cancer rehabilitation?
It’s funny how things work and how things change. These days, oncologists encourage people in treatment to exercise, but when I was sick 20 years ago, they told me not to. They were afraid I’d kill myself and wanted me to focus on getting through the cancer treatments instead. I pushed myself and ran and lifted, because that’s what felt good. I ran up to 10 miles a day during treatment and worked on a Soloflex in the basement. I’m convinced that exercise helped me recover faster. I think I knew intuitively the benefits from being a competitive swimmer and a runner in track-and-field and cross country. My parents also encouraged me to spend a lot of time with friends. That helped to keep my mind off being sick. I had a Hickman catheter [a permanent IV in the chest], though, so playing soccer was a bit awkward.
Who motivated you to start CancerClimber?
My brother Seth and I co-founded the CancerCilmber Association to raise awareness in the cancer community. Initially we wanted to raise funds for research, but new cancer drugs can take about 13 years and, literally, a billion dollars to reach the people who need them. We wanted to make a more immediate impact—something to help people while they’re going through chemotherapy and radiation, not later. Now. So we struck on the idea for giving away adventure support grants to survivors. Nothing like a good old dose of Vitamin H!
Have you met with cancer patients on your international travels, as well?
When I was in Argentina visiting a hospital in Mendoza, a friend pointed out how downtrodden and beaten up all the patients were when we arrived. “When we left,” he said, “every single person had a smile on their face.” That’s my goal. The first time I was in Kathmandu, for example, I visited the Bhakapur Cancer Center, where doctors told me that every cancer patient in the ward would probably die due to lack of adequate technology, support, equipment, drugs, etc. After having visited with these amazing patients from 4 years old to 90, that grim assessment tore me up and reminded me of my case. When I was first diagnosed, my dad had given me a green T-shirt that read, “I don’t always lOOk like this” (on the front), with the “O’s” drawn like big eyes; on the back, it read, “I’m on chemo.” That shirt brought me good luck and made me feel better about losing my hair. I’ve carried it ever since. So I found a 14 year-old—who like me at that age—was battling Hodgkin’s. I gave him the T-shirt and told him to pass it on for good luck when he got better. He knew my story and that I was leaving to climb Everest the next day, and we had a powerful bond. Five years later when I returned to the same hospital, the head doctor told me that the boy had survived his illness and that the T-shirt had been passed on to over 30 different survivors. Amazing. •