How a testicular cancer diagnosis led me to Mt. Kilimanjaro

Before scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro in June 2018, I’d never climbed a real mountain. I live in Beaumont, Texas, which is only around 30 feet above sea level. So, getting to the top of Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) was going to be a real challenge.

But after seeing two-time cancer survivor Sean Swarner’s story on TV while recovering from testicular cancer treatment myself last year, I was determined to go on a trip of my own one day to celebrate beating this disease.

Paying it forward

That trip actually came about in a funny way. After watching a video about Sean’s accomplishments, I’d sent him an email saying how much he’d inspired me. Because not only did he defy the odds by beating two different types of cancer considered terminal, he also completed the “Explorer’s Grand Slam,” in which a person scales the highest peaks on seven continents and visits both the North and South Poles. And he did it all with only one lung.

A few days later, Sean emailed me back. He said he’d always wanted to return to Nepal, and he invited me to go with him as part of a joint fundraiser. My sights were set on going to Mt. Everest Base Camp at the time, so that sounded great. I agreed.

Unfortunately, we ended up not meeting our fundraising goals, so we didn’t make it to the Mt. Everest Base Camp. But, each year, Sean takes one cancer survivor to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro for free through his foundation. And this year, he took me. To pay it forward, I set up another fundraiser that benefitted Sean’s foundation. The proceeds will help pay for the next survivor to go on the trip in 2019.

What my trip meant to me

Sean takes a special flag with him on every adventure. On it, is the word “HOPE,” along with names of people whose lives have been touched by cancer. On this trip, my dad’s name was on there, along with my grandparents’ names and my name.

The climb was not easy. In fact, it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. The combination of altitude, low oxygen, little sleep, and long days made it really tough. But I did make it to the top, and I had that flag with me. I was holding it as I walked to the summit.

I left the flag attached to the sign that everyone takes a picture with. It might have just been a piece of cloth with some names scribbled on it in black marker to some people, but it meant so much more than that. I wasn’t just climbing this mountain for me. I was doing it for the people whose names were on that flag, so that all of Africa could see what cancer survivors are able to do.

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