First cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest

In 1984, I sat in a bar in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I had been invited to speak at a database conference by a company training Nepalese programmers.

The Himalayan mountain range with Mount Everes...

The Himalayan mountain range with the summit of Mt. Everest as seen from the International Space Station looking south-south-east over the Tibetan Plateau. (Photo credit: Wikiped

Behind the bar, on a wooden board, trekkers who had climbed to the top of, or, as they say, summit Mt. Everest, had been invited to carve their names.

There might have been three dozen names.

There are now more than 3,100 people who have completed this trek, most of them since 2000, after improvements in climbing equipment in 1990 made the trip less dangerous.

I don’t remember the name of the bar I went to, but trekkers are said to gather at the Rum Doodle Bar before and after their trips.

For more than 25 years there, if you have summitted Everest, you are invited to write about it and sign a card in the shape of a foot that will be displayed in the bar.

You will get free drinks there the rest of your life.

Why Did Sean Swarner Decide to Climb Mount Everest?

Sean was 13 when he was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s disease, now called lymphoma, a blood cancer.

He was not expected to live three months.

His Dad gave him a t-shirt so he didn’t have to explain to everyone at school who stared at him, why he was puffy and overweight from the medications and bald from chemotherapy.

On the front, it read, “I don’t always look like this.”

On the back, it read, “I’m on chemo.”

Skip ahead, after he beat cancer into remission, with a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

And, running.

He was on the track team, swam in several pools and skiied.

Now, he is 16 and diagnosed with an unrelated, rare cancer, Askin’s sarcoma, a golf-ball sized tumor on his right lung.

He is given last rites and two weeks to live with a disease that has a 6% survival rate.

He is put into a medically-induced coma and misses a year of high school.

Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy again define his life.

During chemotherapy, he runs 10 miles a day, lifts weights and swims.

By May, 1991, at 17, he is in remission again, but has lost a lung to surgery.

He is given the honor of handing out diplomas to the class he would have graduated with and then graduates a year later.

He says he always thought he would beat cancer.

He visualized being healthy.

A few years go by.

And, then, he decided to do something crazy.

He decided that for his life to have meaning, now that he had beat cancer, twice, he had to try something really hard – climb to the top of Mount Everest.

He had to prove to other cancer patients that life and dreams do not end with that diagnosis.

His brother agreed to help him and they moved to Colorado to start a year of training – two brothers who had never climbed a mountain.

Sean quit his job, sold all his worldly goods, and was put up for free in the basement of a family who believed in his mission.

He started collecting sponsors and the names of cancer patients and loved ones who hadn’t made it to write on a scarf he would take to the top of the mountain.

How Many People Have Climbed Mount Everest?

Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, is 29,028 feet high.

To give you some perspective, you usually need oxygen if you are flying in a plane above 10,000 feet.

Thus, Swarner noted that he felt like he was at the height of an airplane when he climbed Mount Everest.

He very nearly was.

Planes usually cruise at 39,000 feet. They need pressurized cabins above 13,500 feet.

You can approach Mount Everest from the North, in Tibet, or from the South, in Nepal, the more popular route and the one Swarner chose.

More than 3,100 had reached the summit of Mount Everest by 2010, mostly after 2000, out of 5,100 recorded attempts.

In 2012, there had been 220 deaths, dropping from a rate of 37% in 1990 to 4.4% in 2004, with improved climbing equipment.

The first recorded team to climb Mount Everest was Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, on May 29, 1953.

Other notable firsts:

  • First woman, Juno Tabei, 1975
  • First to climb without supplemental oxygen, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, 1978
  • First to climb solo, Reinhold Messner, 1980
  • Blind, Erik Weihenmayer, May 25, 2001
  • First to get married, Mona Mulepati and Pem Dorje Sherpa, May 30, 2005
  • Oldest, Min Bahadur Sherchan, May 25, 2008, 76 years old
  • Youngest, Jordan Romero, May 25, 2010, 13 years old
  • Most climbs, Apa Sherpa, 21 times between 1990 and 2011

Sean Swarner, age, 26, two-time cancer survivor, with one remaining lung, was the first cancer survivor to summit Mount Everest, arriving on May 16, 2002, at 9:32 AM.

In his words:

“I was alone – or at least as alone as possible – at the highest peak of my own physical and personal summit.”

“I stood, with my windburned face, chapped lips, eyes shielded by the latest glacier sunglasses, bright orange snow gear, signaling to the world that a kid who’d been told twice in one lifetime he had two weeks to live now had the accomplishment of a lifetime under his belt.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised.”

“Cancer hadn’t beaten me.”

“Why would the world’s tallest mountain?”

The day before he left Kathmandu to begin his trek up Everest, Swarner visited a cancer center and spoke to the staff and patients there, explaining his mission to inspire hope for cancer patients by taking this trek.

Swarner presented the t-shirt his Dad had given him 14 years before to a 13-year-old boy there, who had Stage IV Hodgkin’s disease.

The director of the cancer center translated Swarner’s story for everyone in the room and told them the shirt was a symbol of hope and good luck.

“I told the patient that when he got better and his cancer was gone, he had to pass the shirt on to another young child battling cancer.”

“The shirt had helped me, so he knew it would help him as well.”

“…It was indeed a magical shirt, as I soon found out about a year later, when I was giving a presentation that the doctor from the Bhaktapur Cancer Care Center attended.”

“He came up to me after the talk to let me know that not only did the shirt help the young patient recover from cancer, but it was on the back of a fourth survivor.”

New Vocabulary: Jumar

A jumar is a piece of climbing gear.

Symbolic of Swarner’s resolution to climb Mount Everest, despite considerable physical challenges, he describes it,

“We attached ourselves to the fixed lines and put on our jumars as well.”

“Jumars slide up rope but not down, and they help in climbing.”

“I used them carefully and often.”

Swarner recognized the many ways his trip could have ended before the final ascent.

Trekkers who run into bad weather, as did the group that went the day he was supposed to make his last push, must simply go down and try another year.

Bad weather closed in on that group and they had to retreat.

Swarner had been stricken with altitude sickness and had to delay his final ascent by two days.

No one can carry enough oxygen to make more than one try for Everest on an ascent.

The jumar encapsulates not only Swarner’s successful ascent, but his non-stop planning for it from the moment he decided this was a way to inspire others with cancer.

Where Is He Now?

A motivational speaker, bringing his message of hope and encouragement to organizations and cancer patients, since summitting Mount Everest, Swarner has gone on to climb the highest peaks in each of the 7 continents around the world.

He has completed the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.

He is planning trips to the North and South Poles.

When completed, he will be the first to finish the Ultimate Grand Slam – the 7 Summits and the two Poles.

Sean and his brother, Seth, founded the CancerClimber Association, a non-profit, in 2001.

Its aim is to help cancer survivors meet their own challenges, with adventure grants, a mobile climbing wall for children in cancer centers, and personal visits from cancer survivors to patients.

Order your copy of Swarner’s book from amazon and read his story of how to summit Mt. Everest when you are a cancer survivor by clicking on the title, Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers

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