Sean Swarner can’t help it. Five minutes, sometimes 10, before he reaches a summit of one of the world’s highest mountains, the waterworks get going and his goggles start fogging up.
“I just cry,” says the 32-year-old Boulder, Colo., resident.
It’s the flags. Six so far, one planted on the highest mountain of each continent. Each bearing the names of those battling cancer, the survivors, the ones who lost the fight. Each carried close to his heart as he made his way to the world’s highest points in the mostly startlingly beautiful, and at times inhospitable, reaches of the Earth.
The tears, they’ve always come, ever since he ascended to the world’s highest point on May 16, 2002 — becoming the first cancer survivor to climb Everest. To earn that distinction, Swarner battled and beat not one, but two aggressive cancers.
He’ll detail the fight for his life and his ascent of Mount Everest on Thursday during a signing at Village Books for his new book, “Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World.” ($25, hardcover, Atria Books)
Cancer struck when Swarner was a 13-year-old at Willard Junior High School in Ohio. Its first sign came during a lunchtime basketball game with him driving to the basket when a “snap” comes from his left knee.
“Think King Arthur ripping off a turkey leg in every old Knights of the Round Table movie you’ve ever seen, gristle tearing and flesh loosing and the empty, hollow thwock of joint leaving joint … ” Swarner recounts in the book he co-wrote with Rusty Fischer.
You can’t help but wince and chuckle at the same time. That delivery is a Swarner trademark — really, really bad things told simply and humorously.
The diagnosis: Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph system, and three months to live. Through the horrors of chemo and other treatments (a passage about a bone marrow exam in which a fat needle is pushed through his hipbone and into bone marrow will make you want to faint), Swarner somehow finds and holds on to his will to survive.
He fights his way into remission, only to be diagnosed with Askin’s Sarcoma at age 15. This time, it’s a tumor the size of a golf ball in his right lung. This time, the doctors give him two weeks to live. This time, he becomes the only known person in the world to have been diagnosed with both diseases — and to survive.
He comes away with the deepest appreciation of life, a sense of joy and, ultimately, a mission to encourage others with cancer. Swarner says he wanted to shout from mountain tops about the potential of the human body and spirit.
“What better platform than the highest mountain in the world? To me it seemed like a logical fit,” he says during a telephone interview.
That idea would lead Swarner and brother Seth to create the nonprofit CancerClimber Association and to set their sights on the ascent of 29,035-foot Everest — despite the fact that Swarner had no climbing experience, no funding and just one fully functioning lung.
But he’d survived cancer, twice, so why not jump in with the innocent spirit of a child?
“People are afraid to try things and afraid of failing and … not look(ing) professional,” he says. “When you’re a kid, you’re not afraid to try anything. It’s no big deal for kids because they don’t think about the ramifications. As adults, I think we lose that.”
And that’s how with some training, some climbs on 14,000-foot peaks and some money from sponsors and from cashing in his life’s savings, he ends up in Tibet on his way to the world’s highest point. His descriptions of his ascent are gripping and humorous. He sprinkles the word “fun” into his story, which seems an odd juxtaposition for anyone talking about a mountain infamous for its deadly avalanches, 100-mph winds and life-threatening loss of oxygen.
“If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing what’s the point. I just don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want to deal with any ‘what if’ questions,” Swarner says.
There would be no what-ifs for Everest. Or the five other mountains on five other continents that he has climbed so far — Aconcagua in South America, Kosciusko in Australia, Elbrus in Europe, Kilimanjaro in Africa and, on Jan. 25, Vinson in Antarctica.
They’re part of his quest to be among the few climbers to bag what’s known as the “Seven Summits.” His seventh and last climb is the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in Alaska. The summit goal is May 16. He’ll be done, then, with another feat in a long line of impossible ones. But he hopes to continue inspiring others, including those who read “Keep Climbing.”
“Everybody has it within themselves to do amazing things,” Swarner says.