By Kim Constantinesco
Sean Swarner, 39, is an expert climber not just on the world’s highest peaks, but in the ultimate trek we call life. He climbed his way from the depths of proverbial hell all the way up to quite literally the top of the world.
Swarner is the only person in the world to have been diagnosed with both Hodgkin’s disease and Askin’s sarcoma. He’s also the first cancer survivor to reach the peaks of the highest mountains in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, North America, Australia, and Antarctica. Along with being accustomed to seeing stars at eye level, Swarner has completed the Ironman Hawaii. Did we mention that he’s done all of this with just one fully functioning lung?
At 13 years old, a knee injury from a pick-up basketball game sent Swarner to the hospital. His knee blew up to the size of a grapefruit and doctors couldn’t give him a proper diagnosis. The next morning, Swarner’s parents didn’t recognize their son because every joint in his body swelled up. After further testing, he was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, and he was given three months to live.
“I was actually approached by Make-A-Wish and gave my wish to somebody else,” Swarner said. “I knew I was going to survive so I gave it away.”
The year-long treatment regimen altered Swarner’s identity at a vulnerable time in his life. He lost all of his hair and put on 60 pounds because of the chemotherapy treatment.
“When you’re going through high school, it’s a popularity contest,” Swarner said. “Somebody who is 60 pounds overweight and bald from head to toe isn’t going to be a very popular kid regardless of the fact that people knew why I looked like I did.”
Swarner powered through his first bout with cancer only to be hit with a completely different form of cancer 20 months into remission. When he was 16 years old, doctors found a golf ball sized tumor on his right lung. He was diagnosed with Askin’s sarcoma, one of the most deadly forms of cancer, and was given just two weeks to live. He was even read his last rites.
Between climbing the world’s tallest mountains and being a two-time cancer survivor, one question absolutely had to be asked: What’s been the scariest moment of your life?
“There was a time when I was actually climbing Denali where I fell 100 feet, but I was incredibly calm,” Swarner recalled. “I was roped up, rolled over, self-arrested and everything. For me, it was slow motion and I felt this incredible calmness. The scariest moment of my life wasn’t the first time I got diagnosed with cancer because being that young at 13, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I think the scariest moment was when I got diagnosed the second time at 16.”
On and off for a year, Swarner was in a medically induced coma. His hospital room was busier than Grand Central Station with all of the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff coming in and out. For Swarner, it was a complete blur and the furthest thing from scaling the world’s largest mountains.
“My first goal was to go from the hospital bed to the bathroom, so I wouldn’t soil the sheets,” Swarner said.
After a dizzying fight, Swarner beat that cancer, too.
Swarner figured that if he could tackle the beast that is cancer, he could handle the behemoth that is Mt. Everest. On May 16, 2002, roughly ten years after surviving his second cancer, Swarner stood on top of the 29,029 foot mountain with a flag baring the names of those who have been affected by cancer.
Remember, because Swarner has a build-up of scar tissue on his right lung, there’s no oxygen transfer, which means that he had to climb the tallest mountain in the world with one lung.
“Most people in the climbing community told me that I’d never make it past camp two,” Swarner said.
Swarner spent about half an hour at the top on a near perfect day by Everest standards. In those thirty minutes, he experienced every emotion in the book.
“I guess it would be like winning the World Cup,” Swarner said. “I was exhausted getting there from the year’s worth of training. I was elated because I made it. I was saddened at the same time because it was over. I cried, I laughed, I cheered, everything.”
Today, Swarner travels the world as a motivational speaker. He’s addressed companies like Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, IBM, and ESPN.
Swarner had no idea that this would be his future. In college, he started off as a molecular biology major.
“I thought I was going to play God and cure cancer by splicing genes,” Swarner said.
He did that for three years and then switched to psychology in his fourth year. He went to graduate school to work toward becoming a psycho-oncologist, which is a psychologist for cancer patients.
“I thought I could offer a lot to the patients and the parents,” Swarner said. “When you have cancer, it’s not just you going through it. It’s your family and your friends. I thought I could offer a unique perspective, but emotionally, I couldn’t handle it. I just wasn’t ready to dive into it, but I wanted to do something impressive to show people that there is life after cancer. I figured if a guy with one lung could climb Mt. Everest, that would be a pretty incredible platform to let people know, hey this is what you could do.”
Swarner is using his experience both on and off the mountain to inspire and to save the lives of others. After one of his talks at a hospital, a woman approached him with tears in her eyes.
“She came up to me and just latched on, hugged me, and just buried her face in my chest and just lost it,” Swarner said. “After she calmed down, she was able to start talking. She told me that just in that past year, she lost her son and her husband to cancer, and she got diagnosed for a third time with cancer. She told me that she had fully planned on not going home. In her room, she had a suicide note written, and she convinced herself to go to one more presentation. She told me that I saved her life.”
In addition to being a motivational speaker, Swarner and his younger brother, Seth, founded The Cancer Climber Association.
“Our initial goal was to fund cancer research, but everybody and their mother does that,” Swarner said. “We wanted to do something here, something now. We give away adventure support grants to cancer survivors. It’s kind of like the Make-A-Wish, but for us, it’s kind of like the beginning, not the end.”
This year, they’re taking a woman who is a two-time cancer survivor on their annual trip to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Ultimately, their goal is to have a mobile camp for kids battling cancer.
“It’s a camp that’s going to tour around to different hospitals and unfold to 6,700 square feet,” Swarner said. “Underneath the dome will be a high ropes course, a climbing wall, a movie theater that’s shaped like Everest, a classroom where kids can learn about things like why they’re losing their hair, a cafeteria, and a 2,000 square foot turf area where the kids can set up camp and spend a night or a weekend.”
Swarner’s purpose in life is to show people the potential of the human body, mind, and spirit. His ascent to the greatest heights in the world may not have happened without a prior plunge into darkness where he had to climb his own inner mountain before he could ascend peaks all over the world.
In an odd way, for Swarner, life began with his initial cancer diagnosis. His life continues as he practices doing the things that make him feel the most happy and the most alive. His aliveness is cultivated with as much passion as possible, and we all know that ironically, his zest for life will be carried all the way to the grave.