Sean Swarner did not climb the world's highest mountains as a hobby. He didn't reach altitudes at which jets fly for exercise, nor as a show of extreme bravado.
No, the 32-year-old Willard native reached each summit because in hospital beds around the world, children lay stricken with cancer and bereft of energy, hope and possibly the will to live. His story has been told in media outlets such as ESPN, which produced a special recently on him.
Swarner believes cancer patients need inspiration to continue their own climbing toward recovery and, as the first cancer survivor to reach the top of the world's highest mountains, he tries to be that inspiration. After all, the chances of surviving the cancers that invaded his body were similar to winning the lottery four times in a row with the same numbers, Swarner said.
Swarner has conquered the highest peaks in Africa, Europe, South America, Asia, Antarctica, Australia and North America.
At 6:30 p.m. June 19, Swarner reached the top of the 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, marking the end of his five-year quest to reach the seven summits. The feat came a little more than five years after Swarner became the first cancer survivor to reach the zenith of Mount Everest the world's tallest peak, at 29,035 feet.
By scaling such heights, the 1993 Willard High School graduate was trying to make a statement; that if he can overcome the obstacles he has faced, then cancer is hardly a death sentence.
The stumbling blocks Swarner has faced? Stage 4 Hodgkin's disease, and a prognosis of three months to live; Askin's Sarcoma, an extremely rare and fatal form of cancer with a prognosis of less than two weeks to live; and elevations where the air is razor thin and dangerously short of oxygen. Severe weather conditions abound which threaten climbers' lives.
Most climbers have two fully functioning lungs. Swarner has one, due to radiation he received at age 15 for Askin's Sarcoma.
Inevitably, the question arises: How is it physically possible for someone with one functioning lung to survive such treacherous conditions?
"I think it's a power of the mind; what you believe you can truly accomplish," said Swarner, who seems at peace with himself and life as he speaks in a calm and content tone of voice.
Swarner is not stopping with his accomplishments so far; he plans to trek to the North and South poles.
"If I don't come back that's my limitation," he said.
Swarner has succeeded in inspiring young people, including Willard High School freshman Haley Bergman.
She, and the rest of the Willard High School student body, listened Tuesday as Swarner talked about his experiences as a mountain climber and a source of hope for cancer-stricken youth. Bergman, who receive a signed copy of Swarner’s book, “Keep Climbing,” said Swarner’s address made her feel better about her life. She was diagnosed with cancer of the soft tissue in October 2005. But, Bergman “kept climbing,” and she currently is in remission.
Bergman said while she was encouraged by Swarner’s speech, she doesn’t plan on climbing the world’s tallest mountains.
“No, that’s not for me,” she said.
Walking, much less climbing, was probably the furthest thing from Swarner’s mind one day in eighth grade. He was playing basketball, and heard something snap in his knee. Every joint in his body swelled, and doctors diagnosed him with Stage Four Hodgkin’s Disease, a blood cancer. They estimated he wouldn’t survive past three months. But, roughly two years later, Swarner was doing well until, during a routine check-up, doctors found a tumor in his chest wall that proved to be Askin’s Sarcoma. Two weeks to live.
But, predictions don’t always turn into reality, as Swarner proved once again.
Swarner said he does not know why he is alive. Others counter he knows exactly why he is living today: To lift the spirits of young cancer patients.
They lift his spirits as well.
“She’s the true quote on quote ‘climber,’” Swarner said, referring to Bergman. He added if he decides to descend a mountain and not reach the top, it’s no big deal. But, if cancer patients stop climbing, they die.
Swarner placed a flag at the top of each mountain, bearing the names of a couple hundred cancer survivors he knows.
The flags will forever remain there, bearing the words “Keeping climbing.”