The story of American mountain climber Sean Schwarner sounds like a beautiful, motivational fairy tale with a good ending, if you don’t know that it actually happened. He became the only person in the world to be diagnosed with incurable cancer twice, and twice was able to not only beat them, but afterwards, left with only one functioning lung, to conquer the highest peaks in the world on seven continents.
Sean Schwarner is the first person in the world to be diagnosed with two of the most serious cancers that are completely unrelated to each other: Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Askin’s sarcoma. And he was so far the only person to have managed to beat them.
Sean Schwarner was first diagnosed at age 13 when, after a basketball game, he was hospitalized with a knee injury. The knee swelled to an incredible size and concerned parents brought the boy to the doctor’s office. After examinations, he was diagnosed with the dreaded diagnosis of lymphatic cancer. Doctors prescribed chemotherapy, but warned the parents that they were only giving Sean three months to live.
During the treatment Sean lost all his hair and gained almost 30 kilograms of extra weight, but he persevered through all the difficulties. Later he would say that he knew about his diagnosis and doctors’ predictions, but his adolescent maximalism gave him confidence that he would survive. And the disease, indeed, receded, but only to return three years later, already in a different form.
When Sean Schwarner was 16, doctors discovered a tumor the size of a tennis ball in his right lung. He was diagnosed with stage four Askin’s sarcoma, one of the deadliest forms of cancer, and was now given just a few weeks to live. Sean later confessed that it was the scariest moment, it seemed to him that the insidious disease had taken over his stubbornness after all. But then he pulled himself together and began the second half of the battle with cancer.
For a year, from time to time, Sean was in a medically-induced coma, his consciousness was blurred, but periodically coming to himself, the young man watched television. In one of the programs, he saw a broadcast from the conquest of Everest, and promised himself he would surely do it after recovery, to give hope to others.
Sean Schwarner now had a specific goal that helped him fight the disease. The gift for his 17th birthday was the doctors’ conclusion that he was completely healthy. But after removing the tumor, intensive radiation therapy, and several courses of chemotherapy, it turned out that the affected lung could not fully function. This fact, though distressing to Sean, was not seen as an obstacle to achieving his goals. He began to read the literature, consult doctors and learn how to breathe properly so he didn’t feel sick.
Four full years of his life had been spent on treatment, and Sean Schwarnen was filled with a desire to make up for lost time. He felt compelled to do something to give other people with cancer hope of recovery. No person who had survived cancer had ever conquered Everest before him, so Sean set himself such a goal.
Together with his brother, Seth, they traveled to Colorado, set up a tent in Estes Park, and began training. They had no experience or money, and they weren’t supported by their parents, who thought Sean hadn’t beaten cancer twice to die in the mountain glaciers. But the brothers didn’t give up.
Sean would later tell journalists how hard they trained every day and how once a week they climbed Long’s Peak with backpacks laden with rocks.
Before going to Nepal to climb Everest, Sean Schwarner had to present his project to the board of directors of an American campaign granting permission. Traveling to New York for this purpose in September 2001, Sean Schwarner witnessed the American tragedy; he saw with his own eyes how the Twin Towers burned and then collapsed. It came as a shock to him and reminded him once again how fragile this life, which can be cut short at any moment.
In approving the project, Sean Schwarner faced a serious problem – no guide company wanted to take him on as a client. He did not have much climbing experience, did not have enough money, and most importantly, one of his lungs was not functioning. All the representatives of the companies, without exception, told him that he was physiologically unable to climb above the second camp, which was at 21,000 feet, that it was impossible for him and they did not want anything to do with him.
Finally, he managed to get permission from one company to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the mountain without becoming part of their team. It was already a victory. Sean would later tell journalists how he imagined himself on the summit of Everest every night when he went to bed.
The feeling was so clear that he didn’t doubt for a second that he would succeed. He generally believed that it was the mind that drove everything; it was the mind that set everything in motion, the mind that won and gave up before the body did.
The mountains were difficult, at times he felt as if he couldn’t breathe, but Sean kept his focus on moving forward. Later, Sean will tell that he himself did not notice how on May 16, 2002, about ten years after Sean beat his disease for the second time, he stood atop a 29,029-foot mountain with a flag with the names of those battling cancer written on it.
After conquering Everest, Sean Schwarner became convinced that this was not just his personal achievement, but that through it he could continue to inspire and motivate others struggling with cancer. While still preparing for his ascent of Everest, he founded a non-profit organization called the Association of Mountaineers Affected by Cancer.
After Sean Schwarner became internationally renowned and was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first person to overcome his terrible disease and conquer Everest, he decided the best way to continue this work was to climb the other seven largest peaks on different continents.
Now he had no shortage of sponsors, who enabled him to realize his vision. Over the next six years he conquered Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Aconcagua in South America, Vinson in Antarctica, Kosciusko in Australia and Denali in North America. Although Denali only succumbed to him on his third attempt, it completed the list of the world’s highest mountain peaks conquered by a man who has coped with cancer.
He also decided to take part in the Explorers Grand Slam, which is awarded to those who have conquered the South Pole and the North Pole in addition to the seven mountain summits. Sean became the first cancer survivor to do so. He conquered the South Pole in 2015 and reached the North Pole two years later. Sean Schwarner jokes that he needs to get in touch with Ilon Musk to conquer space as well.
Now Sean Schwarner continues his mission, which he believes is to help people win the fight against incurable diseases by focusing on an active and healthy lifestyle.