Sean Swarner has learned life’s lessons the hardest way possible. At the age of thirteen, he was a typical athletic kid with a bunch of swimming records to his name. One day, while playing basketball, he jumped for a lay-up and came down hard. His knee swelled up, but over the next few hours, so did just about every other joint.
“A day-and-a-half later, I pretty much looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” Sean recalled.
His parents took him to the hospital, and what started as suspected pneumonia quickly ran through a series of blood tests, then bone marrow tests, and eventually a diagnosis of Hodgkins Lymphoma. The cancer was at Stage 4. Treatment began, but Sean was told he might have just three months to live.
The treatment took its toll. While Sean’s friends went to school and worried about their homework, Sean would go to the hospital and hope he wouldn’t die. He put on weight. His hair fell out. “I remember collapsing to the floor and just losing it, absolutely crying my eyeballs out because I was sixty pounds overweight, bald from head to toe,” Sean said. “And I remember pulling chunks of hair out of the drain for the water to go out and go down, but I also remember I was thinking about what my friends were doing that same morning when they were getting ready for school.”
Throughout the treatment, Sean had the support of doctors and his family. He had prayer and what he calls an inner will to keep going. But he also had a particular perspective. He focused on what he wanted instead of on what he didn’t want, on living and not on not dying.
He pulled through. After a year of chemotherapy that cost him his weight, his hair, and many of his friends, he was given a clean bill of health. It didn’t last. As he was turning sixteen, during a routine check-up on his previous cancer, the doctors found a second, entirely unrelated tumor in his lung. It was about the size of a golf ball, a type of cancer that affected about three people in a million… and had a prognosis of about 6 percent. Within a day, the doctors had operated, removed the tumor, and started Sean on another round of chemotherapy. This time, the treatment would be even more severe and the prognosis was even worse. Either the chemotherapy would work or Sean would be dead in fourteen days.
“I remember lying in a hospital bed at sixteen, and a man of the cloth comes in and starts reading me my last rites,” Sean said. “I looked at my Mom and Dad, and I said, ‘I’m not dead yet.’”
He survived the fourteen days, but the treatment that came next would be the worst yet. Sean would go into the hospital on Monday and remain until Friday, then he’d be released to allow his red blood cells to grow back before returning the following Friday and staying until the following Monday.
So severe was the treatment and so traumatic that, as they gave Sean the chemotherapy, doctors would place him in a coma for five days at a time so that he wouldn’t remember what he had undergone.
The treatment lasted a year. Miraculously, it worked. Sean survived, but the months of radiation therapy had left their mark. The accumulation of scar tissue meant that only one of Sean’s lungs still functioned.
Sean went back to school. He graduated from the University of Florida, then started graduate school, studying molecular biology, organic chemistry, and immunology. He didn’t like the topics, but now he wanted to take on cancer, and cure it by splitting genes.
That gap between what he wanted to do and what he was actually doing took its toll. Sean took a sabbatical from his studies, and he decided that instead of immersing himself in chemistry, he would help people with the psychological aspect of cancer recovery. “Even if you’re going through something traumatic like cancer if you have a good attitude, yes, it sucks, but it sucks less with a good attitude,” Sean said. “I wanted to help people with that.”
He resolved to set an example by showing that beyond cancer lay the possibility of doing anything, beating any challenge, reaching any goal. He would show that himself by becoming the first cancer survivor to climb Everest. He was 27 years old. He had one working lung. And he’d never done anything like this before.
Sean trained, and he raised the funds he needed for the permit and the supplies, and he made it. On May 16, 2002, Sean reached the peak of Everest, and he left behind a flag covered with the names of dozens of people whose lives had been touched by cancer.
Everest isn’t the only mountain Sean has climbed. He has now completed the Seven Summits challenge, conquering each of the tallest mountains on each of the continents. He has also trekked to both the North Pole and the South Pole, achieving the Explorer’s Grand Slam. And with his single working lung, he has competed in world championship Iron Man triathlons.
What Sean has demonstrated with his remarkable achievements is the power of attitude. It would have been easy to give up after the illnesses that he’d suffered as a teenager. He would have had every reason to do nothing more physically strenuous than walking from the sofa to the fridge and back. But he didn’t. He saw what he went through as empowerment, as encouragement to go on and do whatever he wanted. After experiencing temperatures of below 80 degrees at the North Pole, the 32 degrees of a regular winter feel much easier. And after surviving cancer twice, every other challenge that life can throw looks small in comparison, even when they’re the size of the world’s biggest mountains.
Few of us have suffered as much as Sean Swarner has done. But we’ve all had our moments, and we can all use those moments to remember that the present is where we live now and that we’re capable of doing anything we set our minds to.
Listen to the full interview with Sean Swarner on The Joel Comm Show.