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A Cancer Doctor Takes Survivors on a Journey of a Lifetime

January 3, 2012

As a breast cancer survivor, I know well how climbing a mountain is a metaphor that can be used to describe the cancer experience. For the next two weeks, my colleagues and I will be following the journey of a special group that has already climbed that metaphorical mountain, as they climb Mount Kilimanjaro together with a doctor who has treated some of them, long-time Society volunteer Richard Deming. Dr. Deming is Founder and Chairman of Above + Beyond Cancer, and is Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines, Iowa. We are thrilled to share his updates on The Road to More Birthdays Blog as he leads this remarkable trip.

–   Terry Music, chief mission delivery officer, American Cancer Society ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As a cancer doctor, I am inspired each and every day by the grace, grit and compassion of my patients.  During the next two weeks, I am taking time away from the hospital to embark on a journey that I hope will transform and inspire me.  I arrived yesterday in Tanzania with 18 cancer survivors to begin a journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.  I am with seven men and 11 women, ages 29 to 73, who are survivors of breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, salivary gland cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia.  Some have been survivors for over a decade; some are still actively undergoing cancer treatment.  The survivors come from every walk of life and include a priest, viola player, army officer, cage fighter, and an insurance executive.  We have trained together as a team and we are ready to learn what Africa and the mountain have to teach us.

Climbing a mountain is a metaphor that many cancer survivors use to describe their cancer experience. Only cancer survivors, themselves, can articulate the overwhelming sense of accomplishment they feel when they succeed in reaching the “summit” of their cancer journey. But what every survivor will tell you is that during the ascent, his or her perspective on life is forever changed.

Through the adversity along the way, survivors have to apply personal strengths, often illusive before their trek. On the other hand, they’ve also had to acquire an appreciation for the talents of others, those who are there for their support. At the end of the journey, they are transformed. In straightforward terms: adversity often leads to personal growth.  

Most cancer survivors come through their cancer journey with a better sense of who they are, what their priorities should be, and gratitude for having been given a second chance at life. Most come through their experience with a greater appreciation for their fellow human beings, with an enhanced sense of gratitude and generosity.  They feel more connected to the world.

This experience resonates with climbers and explorers as well. The journey is difficult, but when one succeeds, there is a rush of excitement and that same sense of accomplishment.  And both journeys ultimately become less about getting to the top, and more about the self-knowledge and wisdom one learns along the way. When all is said and done, when the backpacks and hiking boots put away, life goes forward, with a dramatically altered perspective. Priorities are re-ordered. Life is a gift and not a single minute should be “un-lived”.

In April of last year, I led 14 cancer survivors to the Mount Everest Base Camp.  It was an incredible journey of inspiration, motivation, and self-discovery not just for the survivors, but for all of us who travelled with them.  I had been to Everest in 2000 on a climbing trip with a group of other mountaineers.  I knew from that experience that a trip into the Himalayan Mountains could be transformative.  That trip for me was all about going further, farther, and higher, yet, along the way I was rewarded by moments of spiritual clarity and a sense of compassion that developed from my relationship with the Sherpa guides and with nature.  It was a trip that fulfilled my dreams.  My journey to Nepal earlier this year with the cancer survivors was about giving birth to dreams.  Even with 30 years of experience caring for cancer patients, I was not prepared for how meaningful and inspirational the Everest journey was going to be. 

On our journey to Everest Base Camp, we experienced some physical hardships along the way.  The adversity we encountered led us to new heights of personal growth.  We met people who lived simple mountain lives.  We learned their culture and their religion.  We felt gratitude for their hospitality and we learned that we are all connected to each other on this earth.  We gained an appreciation for the magnificent beauty of our planet as we travelled into the mountains. We explored our relationship with our environment and we developed humility and gratitude for its splendor.

The adventure on Mount Kilimanjaro will mirror and reinforce the journey already completed by cancer survivors. Laughter and tears along the way will deepen our understanding of how adversity can enhance our lives and the lives of those around us forever.  We will return home with an even greater appreciation for life, our planet, and our fellow human beings.  Our gratitude and generosity will help change the world we live in for the better.  I look forward to sharing our journey with you over the next two weeks.

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