Is there a place on this planet Sean Swarner hasn’t stepped foot? Probably not.
The 42-year-old adventurer best known as the first cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest just traversed more than 70 miles to the North Pole, where the windchill tumbled to minus-80 degrees. Did I mention he only has one fully functioning lung and he was lugging a 150-pound sled?
“Anything is possible and there’s always good in every bad situation,” Swarner said. “Cancer is probably one of, if not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but in the same breath, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Life’s all about perspective.”
By reaching the northern most point on the globe, Swarner not only completed the “Explorer’s Grand Slam,” meaning he’s reached the highest mountain on each continent and trekked to the North and South Poles, but he also served as a pillar for those who have been touched by cancer in one way or another.
That’s because he carried “The Flag of Hope,” a massive flag adorned with names, which enabled him to “bring” with him about 2,000 people who currently have cancer, have beat cancer, or who have lost their fight to cancer. This Mission of Hope campaign raised about $32,000 which will go toward finding a cure for cancer and toward various organizations who support those affected by the disease.
Water Like Oil
Swarner was given just three months to live at 13 years old when he was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The teen slayed that fight, but not even two years later, he received a second diagnosis of Askin’s sarcoma. His prognosis? Two weeks to live.
So, there’s no better person to be a face for overcoming the disease. And, there’s no better person to overcome extreme terrain and weather to show what survivorship is all about.
After about 12 delayed flights from his home in Denver, Swarner finally landed in Longyearbyen, Norway. From there, it was off to Camp Barneo, a temporary ice camp. Functioning on very little sleep, Swarner and his group took off in the middle of the night for the very long, frigid trek.
“The first day, we had to cross a bunch of huge cracks in the ocean, and the water was so cold and so deep, it looked like oil,” Swarner said. “There were a couple of sections where it was really sketchy going across. The last thing you want to do is fall through. One guy’s hand went in the water last year. He had heated liner gloves on, but when he pulled his hand out, he saw his hand instantly froze and he lost three fingers. That was the kind of thing going through my mind as we were crossing the stuff.”
And don’t be fooled. Breaking for the night to camp was just as dangerous and challenging.
“The biggest thing was keeping things dry. It was 97% humidity,” Swarner said. To cook our food, we had to melt the water, and we couldn’t let it boil because if it boiled, it would steam up everything in the tent. I kept my sleeping bag in a silicone bag, and didn’t take it out of the silicone bag until after the moisture from the tent was gone.”
On April 11, Swarner officially reached the geographic North Pole. It was a little anti-climatic because there was nothing there, not even a pole, due to the floating Arctic ice, but when he pulled out the Flag of Hope, he “wept like a baby.”
“I think this is the first trip where it wasn’t about the journey,” he said. “It actually was about the destination. Everest was, ‘Enjoy the moment.’ Kilimanjaro was ‘Enjoy the people.’ This trip, you couldn’t really communicate with the person in front of you or the person behind you. From the time we woke up to the time we went to bed, we were always doing something because if you didn’t, then you’d freeze.”
However, Swarner did sit still long enough to propose to his girlfriend via satellite phone from the North Pole. Don’t worry. By the time they get married, he will have regained full feeling back in his two middle fingers on both hands.
Along with marriage, his future also includes performance coaching. He has plans to offer experiential adventure seminars for executives and anyone who wants to receive life coaching.
“I wonder how many people out there feel like they’re stuck like a rat in a maze,” Swarner said. “They wake up at the same time Monday through Friday, they go to the same job, and they go home. So many people work just hard enough so that they don’t get fired rather than working hard enough to get a raise. I’d like to help them change that pattern.”
Swarner’s message is clear: It’s by taking chances and stepping outside our comfort zones that creates a fulfilling life.
And, as for when life inevitably gets messy?
“We have to remember that we can be miserable for a long time and still come out okay.”
Inspired by what Sean is doing? Have him speak at your school, workplace, or next big event.