Sean Swarner — Defying the Odds
For two-time cancer survivor Sean Swarner, nothing’s impossible. Not even the Explorers Grand Slam.
At age 13, Sean was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma. He was told he had only months to live, but he made a full recovery. Then, when he was 16, his doctors discovered an Askin tumor on his right lung. This time, they told him he had just 14 days to live. Once again, he defied statistics. He’s believed to be the only person to ever be diagnosed with both types of cancer.
“Cancer, I’ll be honest, was one of the worst things that ever happened to me,” Sean shares in a recent interview with Coping. “But in the same breath, I’ll say it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
You might say that overcoming such incredible odds at a young age gave Sean the tenacity to take on challenges many would deem impossible. For instance, Sean became the first cancer survivor to summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, in 2002. But he didn’t stop there. By 2008, he had completed the Seven Summits, reaching the highest peak on each of the seven continents. And just last month, 15 years after his first Everest summit, he became the first cancer survivor to complete the Explorers Grand Slam.
“It was miserable, but it was unbelievable. When I got there, I collapsed on my hands and knees, and I cried like a baby.”
At 42 years old, Sean concluded the last leg of the Grand Slam in April – a trek of more than 100 miles to the North Pole. “I got up to the North Pole after seven or eight days of -40° temperatures with the wind chill at -80°,” Sean explains. “Humans are not designed to live and survive in climates like that. It was miserable, but it was unbelievable. When I got there, I collapsed on my hands and knees, and I cried like a baby. It was so overwhelmingly emotional.”
On his hike to the North Pole, not only was Sean pulling a full sled of supplies through the harsh arctic conditions, but he also carried a “Flag of Hope,” emblazoned with 1,960 names of people touched by cancer. “At the bottom of the flag, it said, ‘Dedicated to all those affected by cancer in this small world. Keep climbing,’” he shares. “The flag was in the sled most of the time, and there were so many times when I was getting tired of just pulling this thing. And I realized that whenever I was getting tired of pulling the sled, it almost felt like those people who were with me were pushing me.”
Those people – all the names on his flag – were part of a fundraising campaign for several nonprofit organizations. Before Sean set out for the North Pole, he asked for $5 donations through his CrowdRise fundraising page from anyone who wanted to add a survivor’s name to his flag, either a loved one’s or their own. He’s left similar flags on each of the Seven Summits, as well as at the South Pole.
Sean has an undeniable thirst for life and adventure. No matter what comes his way, he somehow manages to defy the odds and inspire others. He says, “I wake up every morning, and I actually tell myself, there’s nothing I can do about yesterday. Yesterday is the past. Tomorrow might never come, so no matter what happens, today is the best day ever.”
Sean Swarner (left) at the North Pole. (Photo by Corbin Johnston)
Sean’s list of accomplishments doesn’t stop with climbing and trekking. He also completed the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, cofounded The CancerClimber Association, and is the author of Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World. He is a motivational speaker, having spoken around the world for corporations, cancer charities, and hospitals, and is a performance and life coach.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.