Cancer Survivors Turn Out for Tanner’s Celebration of Life
Posted Date: 2/22/2013
About 130 cancer survivors, guests and volunteers enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and an inspiring presentation Thursday evening that took them to the peaks of the world’s Seven Summits at Tanner Health System and Tanner Cancer Care’s fourth annual Celebration of Life at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton.
Special guest speaker Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor and the first cancer survivor to scale Mount Everest and the other Seven Summits—the highest peaks on each of the seven continents, including Mount Vinson in Antarctica—provided a special presentation chronicling his adventures, especially his ascent up Everest.
Swarner’s presentation included video taken from a camera mounted to his helmet as he hiked up Everest. The video captured a vast field of blinding white snow and Swarner’s gasping breaths as he trudged on.
“So everybody can see how exciting climbing Everest is,” he said on the film. Two breaths later, he muttered: “It sucks.”
Diagnosed at age 13 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Swarner was given three months to live. However, after 10 months of intense chemotherapy, Swarner overcame the disease.
The side effects of the chemo caused him to gain 60 pounds and lose most of his hair, however.
“A year later, I walked out of the hospital a hairless, bloated, happy young man,” Swarner joked.
Then, at 16, a routine follow-up exam showed a cancerous mass roughly the size of a golf ball inside his chest wall. Another round of treatment included chemotherapy and radiation, but he overcame that, too, though the treatments left him with only one functioning lung.
Swarner said that surviving both bouts of cancer was statistically “equivalent to winning the lottery four times in a row—with the same numbers.”
After working to find ways he could help people with cancer—including a brief exploration of the fields of molecular biology and psychology for cancer patients during college—Swarner decided he wanted to do something big to give people hope.
“I thought I could do something huge, like run across the country,” Swarner said. “But then I was like, ‘no way, that’s a lot of running.’” He also said he considered running marathons around the country and visiting cancer hospitals, but “still, that was a lot of running.”
Finally, he settled on deciding to climb the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. But getting to the top of the world wasn’t going to be his only obstacle. For one thing, he had to have someone to take him.
“You can’t just show up in Nepal and say I’m here to climb Everest,” Swarner said. “You have to have a team to take you … There was no way anyone was going to take up a one-lunged, two-time cancer survivor lunatic.”
Also, he had to convince his parents that it was a good idea.
“They didn’t get me through two bouts of cancer so I could go kill myself on a chunk of rock and ice,” Swarner said.
Still, he managed to talk his parents and a travel guide into letting him attempt the summit, and began training—which included moving from Jacksonville, Fla., to Colorado so he could have something to climb.
At Everest, he described the dangers of trying to climb the mountain. It’s not a straight shot, he explained, because the change of altitude can cause severe physical reactions, including swelling of the brain and fluids to pool in the lungs. The body has to become acclimatized to the environment, and that means going up the mountain to various elevations and then returning to base camp to give the body time to heal.
“It’s sort of like chemotherapy, really,” Swarner said. “You don’t have a dose of chemotherapy and then go right back in for another. You have to give your body time to recover in between. That’s sort of what climbing the mountain was like.” He said that, by the time you reach the summit, you’ve basically “climbed the thing 15 times.”
He said that, with his younger brother and his support team, “people who had been touched by cancer carried me to the top.” He showed a video of a silk flag he carried with him to the summit, covered in the names of people who had been touched by cancer.
Back in a cancer hospital in Nepal, Swarner met with others with cancer, including a 14-year-old boy with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Swarner had a shirt with him that his dad had given him. The front said, “I don’t always look like this,” and on the back, “I’m on chemo.” He wore the shirt through both bouts of cancer, and considered it good luck. He gave it to the boy.
Upon a return trip to the hospital to help it raise money, he met one of the doctors who remembered him from his last visit—not because he was a cancer survivor who climbed Mount Everest, but because he was “the shirt guy.” The doctor told him that the boy who received the shirt did overcome cancer, and that the shirt has gone on to be worn by more than 30 others who also have survived.
After climbing the Seven Summits and competing in an Iron Man triathlon in Hawaii, Swarner now has his eyes set on hiking to the North and South poles, a feat that would complete the “Adventure Grand Slam,” he said.
The evening also featured an invocation from Brian Barden, MD, a board-certified surgeon with Carrollton Surgical Group and Tanner’s physician liaison to the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, and a welcome from Richie Bland, MD, a board-certified radiation oncologist and medical operations leader for Tanner Cancer Care.
Among those in attendance were members of Tanner’s Oncology Advisory Council, a group of individuals who have survived or otherwise been touched by cancer who offer advice and perspective to help Tanner improve its cancer program, which has grown in recent years to include patient navigators, a full-time dietitian, behavioral health support and more.
“We are so honored to have this opportunity every year to celebrate what these survivors mean to us at Tanner,” said Loy Howard, president and CEO of Tanner Health System. “We see their struggle and we’re with them through the good times and the bad. They give us so much inspiration, and it’s wonderful to have this occasion to thank them for the lessons they teach us.”
More information on Tanner’s cancer services, including treatments, support groups and more, is available in the Tanner Cancer Care section of the Web site.