Overcoming cancer is always something to celebrate. .
But for mountaineer and motivational speaker Sean Swarner, it became the impetus for doing something greater – inspiring others to live a full life, regardless of what obstacles are thrown in their way.
American Sunglass recently caught up with the 41-year-old Swarner who remarkably defied the odds as a teenager, defeating cancer not once, but twice. When he was diagnosed a second time at the age of 16, doctors gave him two weeks to live. He was given his last rites.
“It was difficult,” Swarner told us. “I had my entire life ahead of me and then my future became the next day, if I was able to get there. It put a lot of things in perspective. It wasn’t about being popular or following the latest trend in high school or having the nicest clothes. It was about survival and enjoying every moment in life we’ve been given.”
Not only has Swarner survived, he has thrived, even with only one functioning lung as the result of aggressive treatments for Askin's sarcoma when he fought cancer for the second time.
Even today, the specter of cancer looms over Swarner. We spoke to him the day after he had received the results from his most recent physical. “Every year, I tell my friends I’m going to be a little different for a few days because I’m waiting for my blood tests to come back,” he said. “Then it’s back to my normal self for most of the year. When you talk about having cancer, it is always in the background.”
Despite that uncertainty, Swarner refuses to live his life in fear.
That attitude towards life manifested itself when he moved to Colorado – he currently lives in Breckenridge - roughly a year before he would attempt to conquer Mt. Everest. He began climbing the state’s 14,000-footers, carrying 100 pounds of rocks in his backpack to prepare for the rigors of the highest mountaintop in the world.
By the time he went to Nepal, Swarner’s body was ready for what lay ahead. He was joined by his brother who came with him to base camp and two Sherpas who served as his guides. With little fanfare, Swarner made it to the summit, placing a flag at the top of the world with the names of people who have been touched by cancer. “I kind of describe it like taking every emotion I ever had and putting it into a rubber bouncy ball and exploding it,” Swarner said. “I fell to my knees and broke down in tears.”
This was the third mountain – the others being Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Askin’s sarcoma - that Swarner had overcome in his life, becoming the first cancer survivor to climb Everest.
Since then Swarner has scaled the highest peaks in every continent – Aconcagua (South America), Mount McKinley (North America), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mount Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica) and Puncak Jaya (Australia).
In 2008, he completed the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Last January, he trekked across the South Pole and has his sights set on doing the North Pole next spring. This past February, Swarner participated in the 2016 Empire State Building Run-Up Presented by Marmot.
There is seemingly no challenge too big for Swarner to take on. “Life is way too short to be safe,” Swarner said. “It’s not about how long you live, it’s about how much you live.”
His greatest contribution may be the inspiration he provides for others. A motivational speaker to businesses, organizations and groups throughout the world, Swarner provides hope to many at a time when they need it most. Swarner recalled a conversation he had with a woman he had met after one of his talks. With tears coming down her face, she told Swarner that she had lost her son to cancer, her husband to cancer and recently had been diagnosed with cancer a third time. “She went to that conference with a suicide note. She was going to kill herself, but she ended up going to my talk and listening to me saved her life,” Swarner said. “It gives me chills thinking about it sometimes.”
Swarner knows there are many like her who have either been touched by cancer or know someone who has.
And so he has dedicated himself to helping those facing the disease. He is founder of the nonprofit Cancer Climber Association, taking part in an annual climb of Kilimanjaro for the organization which provides support to those fighting cancer. “When I had cancer, I didn’t have hope,” Swarner said. “That is what I’m trying to give to other people.”
So with each obstacle he overcomes, Swarner is proof that the impossible can be possible. He’s one person who was once given 14 days to live, making the most out of every minute of life.
At American Sunglass, there are multiple brands we sell that are making a similar impact on our world. They are taking steps to improve sight in the most impoverished of nations and giving back to their communities in small and large ways. TOMS, Revo and Maui Jim are just a few of those brands. We invite you to learn more about their work here.
Words of an Icon: “There’s a difference between being alive and living.” – Sean Swarner