Our series on athletes overcoming obstacles continues with Patrick Broadwater’s look at Sean Swarner, a cancer survivor who has climbed the highest peak on all seven continents.
Sean Swarner was given a second chance in life, and then a third. In return he’s spreading hope and inspiration to cancer patients around the world.
No other adventure athlete can say he has climbed the seven summits, run the Boston marathon, competed in the Kona Ironman World Championships, and beat cancer. Twice.
For more than a decade Swarner, 39, has traveled the globe participating in endurance events that test the limits of what the body can accomplish. And spreading the word to others who are affected by cancer, in speeches and private bedside meetings on cancer wards, that anything is possible. He knows this to be true, because he has lived it.
Diagnosed with the advanced stages of Hodgkin’s disease at age 13, Swarner was given just three months to live. But after 18 months of grueling chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission.
Months later, routine testing revealed a new problem: a golf-ball sized tumor on his lung. It was discovered to be Askin tumor, an aggressive and rare type of cancer. After the tumor was removed, doctors gave Swarner two weeks to live and put him into a medically induced coma. At age 16, he was administered his last rites.
Again Swarner endured. Months of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments ravaged his body, leaving him with just one functioning lung. But eventually, the pudgy kid from Willard, Ohio who had lost all his hair and was nauseous all the time, rediscovered athletics. And by his senior year in high school, he had joined the track team and improbably won the conference meet in the 800 meters.
Swarner went on to graduate from Westminster College (PA), where he was a member of the swim team. He went on to pursue post-graduate work but just credits shy of his master’s degree decided that a career in counseling was not in the cards. Instead, he moved to Colorado to train for a climb up Everest despite having no previous mountaineering experience. On May 16, 2002, he reached the summit to become the first cancer survivor to ever scale the world’s tallest peak.
In the past 11 years, he has added the highest peak on every continent and has returned so many times to Mount Kilimanjaro – this past July was his 10th trip – the locals have nicknamed him “Crazy White Man.”
Next month, Swarner and four friends will run the New York City marathon to raise money for his CancerClimber Association. In 2014, he’s planning to make a trip to the South Pole. His goal is to get a sponsor to provide him with a satellite phone for the trip, so that each day of the 650-mile trek he can call a cancer patient from Antarctica.
“How cool would that be? To get a phone call from Antarctica from someone who has been where they are before.”
In between excursions he continues to make speeches around the world and, when possible, ties in a hospital visit. One of his latest initiatives is to tweet out the names of individuals who have been affected by cancer with the hashtag #realcancerheroes.
“We shouldn’t be looking up to movie stars or famous athletes,” Swarner said. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how famous you are. What matters are the people whose lives affect you personally and the difference you make in the lives of those around you.”
Swarner knows he’s making a difference. He tells the story of a meet and greet following one of his speeches when he encountered a woman with bloodshot eyes. It was obvious that she had been crying, which is not an unusual reaction to his presentation. Upon getting to the front of the line, she pulled him close and sobbed on his chest, soaking his shirt with her grief. Her son and husband had both passed away from cancer within the past 12 months and she had just been diagnosed with cancer for the third time.
“She said, ‘You saved my life,’” he said.
“I get choked up talking about it now. But whenever I wonder if I’m doing something right or what my life’s purpose is, I just think of her.”
Photo: AP/Binod Joshi
Read more in our series on Athletes Overcoming Obstacles:
Erik Crosier on Jim Abbott
Robert Bennett III on Michael Hartfield
and Travis Timmons on Derek Redmond