Sean: You can’t go through something traumatic without a change in who you are. But you can choose how you want to see that. I think one of the greatest freedoms in life is the freedom of choice. You can choose your perspective, you can always choose your own perspective.
Erik: It’s easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten the chance to ascend Mt. Everest. To climb the tallest mountain in every continent. To kayak the grand canyon, and I happen to be blind. It’s been a struggle to live what I call a No Barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. And on unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call No Barriers.
Dave: Today we’ll meet Sean Swarner, the first cancer survivor to stand on top of Mount Everest. Diagnosed with two deadly, different and unrelated forms of cancer, once at age 13 and again at age 16, Sean astounded the medical community when he survived both. He realized that after defeating cancer twice, no challenge would ever be too great. No peak too high. He has since topped the seven summits and skied both the south and north poles. He continues to test his own endurance and inspire and motivate people around the world with his message of hope.
He founded the non-profit organization the Cancer Climber Association and is now an author, speaker and most recently the feature of the documentary True North.
Jeff: Welcome everybody to the No Barriers podcast, we are happy to be back here again with you today with another amazing guest to join us today. We are still just kind of coming off of the Thanksgiving break and really in Colorado we’re full bore winter right now. Contrary to the past few years that we’ve had.
Erik: Two feet of pow.
Jeff: I mean it’s been big, I was just back country and it’s literally I can count on one hand the number of seasons in 30 years I’ve lived in Colorado that I’ve skied five times before December 1st and just went out yesterday and was charging hard but Erik …
Erik: Yeah wait because our last guest before the interview said, hey what sports do you do Jeff and you said I do it all.
Jeff: Well I don’t want to get pigeonholed like you because I’m asking you beforehand like bro are you like are you ready to go skiing, you’re like, “I’m not really into skiing.”
Erik: Oh no, it’s still late November, I’m just not into ski mode yet.
Jeff: “I’m just into climbing.” Okay, so let’s …
Erik: Yeah, there’s still some sunny days out there to be enjoyed.
Jeff: Yeah, we gotta diversify your portfolio.
Erik: That’s true.
Jeff: So you’re not willing to give up the rock yet because it’s just too hot and sunny. So where are you going, you’re going somewhere?
Erik: I’m going to Wadi Rum which is where they filmed Lawrence of Arabia. So I’m going to go work there and then I’m going to climb for a week afterwards with some friends.
Jeff: Where is it?
Erik: It is in Jordan and it’s in the desert and we’re gonna be at a desert camp climbing every day. They’re big, like 700 meters, 2000 foot towers.
Jeff: Is it sandstone?
Erik: Yeah it’s sandstone and it’s a little crumbly but it’s a lot of crack climbing and things like that so anyway, so my rock climbing season hasn’t’ quite ended yet.
Jeff: And then you’ll strap the skis on. I’ll talk you into …
Erik: Eventually I’ll get the mood to ski.
Jeff: Yes you will.
Erik: We sound very privileged and spoiled talking about our pursuits here.
Jeff: Hey, it’s called outdoor attention deficit disorder. You’ve got to change the equipment from season to season, it’s okay.
Erik: Well we got, yeah we got a great guest here, this is a local legend, Sean Swarner, welcome Sean, it’s amazing. I mean you’ve done so many things it’s nuts, you must be 85 years old.
Jeff: Do you feel 85 years old? You don’t look it.
Sean: Thank you, I’m actually 120.
Erik: You’re 120. Yeah it took you 120 years to do all the things that you’ve done.
Jeff: What are you like Benjamin Button though?
Sean: Yeah, aging in reverse.
Erik: He’s climbed the seven summits, he’s skied to the south pole, the north pole. He’s done an iron man, right? One iron man?
Sean: Hawaii Iron Man, yeah one’s enough I think.
Erik: One’s enough I think, for sure. Yeah zero are enough for me. And just a lot of amazing stuff. You speak, you have a film out. You have a book, I mean lots of different series of books.
Jeff: And pending nuptials.
Erik: Oh yeah that’s right.
Sean: Pending nuptials, yeah. February 9th we’re getting married in Puerto Rico.
Jeff: That’s exciting.
Erik: So an amazing resume and you’ve had some struggles. You’re part of the No Barriers club I would say.
Sean: I suppose but it’s kind of funny you were talking about you heading to Jordan I was thinking I don’t have it too rough either because I’m going to Aruba for Christmas. Catching a bunch of frequent fliers in American and heading down there with some time share points from my Fiance’s family.
Erik: And that’s hard core side of life, what do you like about adventure, you know the non-Aruba adventures?
Sean: Well I don’t know man, the sun down there’s pretty intense. I like pushing myself, I like finding out what makes me tick and kind of the core of seeing I guess my limitations if that makes sense.
Erik: Have you found your limitations?
Sean: I have not yet but I suppose like we said earlier my next big adventure is marriage so maybe that’ll be more difficult.
Jeff: Oh marriage will teach you some limitations for sure bro.
Erik: Give you good humility.
Sean: Right, so maybe that will be my limitation. After that maybe a kid or two here or there, if I can have kids. You know because of the chemo and everything because I’ve had two cancers but …
Jeff: Ho ho ho ho ho, let’s not brush right through that so.
Erik: Yeah, just two cancers.
Sean: Just two cancers. [inaudible] casual conversation.
Erik: Which is the great part about life is you didn’t get one cancer, you got two.
Sean: Yeah, I suppose I’m …
Erik: And you don’t get to climb with two good lungs, you get to climb with one lung.
Sean: Yeah one lung up Everest is …
Jeff: So we have a cancer framework for the whole thing but prior to being diagnosed what was your routine back then and when was that?
Sean: Well let’s if somebody’s quick in math, I was 13 in 1988 so you can figure out how old I am. But I was just a normal kid in Willard Ohio. Just a normal Midwest guy where my backyard was I guess a bean field or a cornfield depending on the season and I would knock over the corn stalks, build a little fort. I was just a typical corn fed Midwestern boy, and I loved life and I swam at an early age and pushed myself even when I was young.
Jeff: Were you into traditional sports?
Sean: I was mainly into swimming, that was the biggest one but then I also ran track, cross country. I tried football for a little bit, I even pole vaulted and soccer, so I’d say I tried a lot of different things.
Erik: A lot of lung intensive sports actually. So that was like … right?
Sean: Yeah, a lot of aerobic stuff.
Erik: Yeah a lot of aerobic stuff. A lot of climbers are ex-swimmers it seems like.
Sean: Yeah it does seem like that so maybe … and I also, totally off the subject I have a genetic defect in my heart where I have two superior vena cavas which are the veins that pump oxygen less blood back to your lungs to get your body rejuvenated again with oxygen so it’s almost like somebody upstairs knew I was gonna lose a lung.
Jeff: Interesting but you didn’t know this at the time.
Sean: No clue.
Jeff: So alright was it a lightning bolt sort of moment that you and your family realized this as a young kid that you had this diagnosis?
Sean: Initially it wasn’t just a lightning bolt type thing. It was a knee injury and then that knee injury, looking back at it because kind of starting from the back end, I was diagnosed at 13 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and because of the lymph system and how it works, when I had that knee injury that triggered every other joint to go so haywire that I swelled up and looked like the Pillsbury dough boy.
Erik: So you just swelled up one day?
Sean: Swelled up one day because of the knee injury. And then my lungs started gurgling and everything else and the doctor initially stuck me in the local hospital. Like I said Willard Ohio, population 5000 and they started treating me for pneumonia and you can’t exactly cure cancer by sucking on a nebulizer so I wasn’t getting any better. Then they stuck me to Columbus Ohio and after doing a number of test, I can’t tell you how many vials of blood they took. I was treated as an adult so even when I did, when I had the bone marrow test which is when they go in the back of your …
Back down here right above your butt cheeks with this basically with this surgical drill and they try to aspirate some of your marrow. They went in and the first time aspirated a piece of bone, they had to do it two more times. So that was probably the most painful thing that I ever had happen to me. But then they finally diagnosed me with advance stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma and they told my parents hey your first born son has three months to live.
Jeff: Alright well obviously, mom, I can’t imagine being a parent, what that would be like.
Erik: Yeah, what was that like for your parents?
Jeff: For your parents specifically?
Sean: You know looking back at it, being 44 now and thinking about having children and I have a nephew, actually two nephews, looking back at it and me being 13 at the time and then 16 the second time with a different cancer which I’m sure we’ll get into, I didn’t really understand fully what I was going through because I was 13, I was young, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what death meant, hey you’re gonna be dead in three months.
I had no concept of what that even meant. But looking at it from my parent’s side I bet you it was more difficult on them. Because you can’t take that illness away from your child, you can’t go in there and say hey cancer, begone. And there’s nothing they could do except for be there.
Jeff: Yeah, being a powerless parent is like … is the worst feeling in the world, right? You have brothers and sisters?
Sean: One brother. Younger but taller, he’s 6’7″.
Jeff: So he was part of the fabric just going through that struggle with you as well, right?
Sean: Yeah, he actually was passed off to friends and family and every once in a while we’ll get together now, years, 25, 26 years later and have a couple drinks and we’ll be arm in arm and I’ll be like I’m sorry man, I’m sorry for what I put you through and he’s like it’s okay, it’s okay. But at the time he just got passed off to family members and friends because I would go down to the hospital. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday dad would come down. Thursday Friday Saturday and our entire lives as a family was on hold.
Jeff: Yeah, because y’all go into survival mode, right?
Sean: Exactly. I remember there was one time I woke up in the morning getting ready for school, this is probably part way into the treatment, so at this point I’m about 60 pounds overweight and it was just … it was horrible on me because I had always been an athlete and I was just bloated 60 pounds overweight.
Erik: Is that from chemo or …
Sean: The prednisone.
Erik: Prednisone right, prednisone.
Sean: The steroid. And I remember sitting on the side of the bed and off to my left side I remember seeing a ton of hair on my pillow and that was the moment that my hair started falling out because of the chemo and I remember running into the bathroom and staring myself in the mirror almost in tears. And just kind of figuring out where the hair was coming out but eventually I went back into the shower, I turned the shower on and while I was in the shower, all of my hair fell out.
So I was thinking, first of all I collapsed to the floor. I literally just sat on the floor until the water ended up started running cold and I just had clumps of hair in my hands, tears running down my face, I was pulling chunks of hair out of the drain and I was thinking about what my friends were doing that morning. They were out worried about the coolest hairstyles, they were worried about the coolest shoes, the nicest clothes, being in the popular cliques, whatever it might be.
Here I am and that was the moment I decided that I had two choices, I could either fight for my life or give up and die.
Erik: But isn’t that so … I mean that’s such a powerful story because it’s like the cancer, oh you’re diagnosed with advanced stage four cancer. That’s not the moments that when you … it’s that tangible moment of feeling your hair coming out of your head. It seems like that’s the moment where it’s real.
Sean: Oh for sure, I think it’s moments like that where if something happens to you personally, it’s not when you are told that somethings happening to you, it’s in the moment where you’re almost for me, when I was by myself and it kind of smacked me in the face. I was like holy shit, I’m diagnosed with cancer. Like I said those were my two options, I could either fight or die.
Erik: Well because you’re against the … you’re in the corner of the ring at that point, right?
Sean: Exactly. It’s kind of like putting a rat in the corner, he’s gonna fight and tear and claw and I think that’s what came out in me. And I think I learned that from my parents because a long time ago when I was a swimmer, they always told me that I didn’t have to be the best I just had to be my best and constantly improve myself one day at a time. You know, maybe I swam the 50 breast stroke and I went a 30. Next time I should go a 29.8, just constantly improve myself a little bit and I did that through the cancers as well.
Jeff: But at the age of 13, my son’s 13, and I know how limited the scope of a 13 year old mind is, very very well. I can’t imagine at 13 you understood the profound nature of where you were and perhaps was seeing your parents emotionally affected by what you were going through, did that impact you as a son? Or were you so sort of just smacked across the face? And it was hard for you to process? I’m trying to …
Sean: You know I think … looking back at it and comparing, well not comparing but just looking at different perspectives like your son and what I went through, those are two completely different perspectives on the world and my reality, my world was the hospital system. It quickly became the hospital system and my family became the nurses, the doctors. Dr. Davis came in and he would always say hello friend before he picked up my medical chart at the bottom of the hospital bed.
He’d always come in, grab my feet, hello friend. So we became a close knit family group and your son I’m hoping has never experienced that. So I think I was forced to take a different perspective on life than most 13 years olds. I think I was 13 going on 40 understanding the differences and the fragility of life.
Erik: So then do you kind of … you go through treatment right and you miraculously start improving, right? And then number two?
Erik: It’s hard to believe that this story is not a fictional book or something.
Sean: Oh no kidding and I’ll be honest with you I sometimes have survivors guilt because the second time around I was diagnosed with a type of cancer that affects three out of a million people with a prognosis of six percent.
Jeff: And what was the time span?
Sean: So the first cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, advanced stage four. I went through chemo treatments, treatments for about a year. I was in remission for a year.
Jeff: When you were 13?
Sean: 13, 14 yep and then 15 I was in remission for a year and I was going in for a regular checkup for the first cancer when they found a second cancer which was another primary tumor, another primary cancer completely unrelated to the first one.
Erik: So they’re not related, that’s even more …
Sean: Totally unrelated.
Erik: That’s just more insanity.
Sean: A lot of doctors would say maybe it’s a secondary cancer from the treatment but the thing is they’re completely unrelated and I’m the only person who has ever been diagnosed with both of those cancers.
Jeff: In the world?
Sean: In the world.
Erik: Well you’re getting in the Guinness book of world records then.
Sean: Yeah right?
Erik: For more than just climbing.
Sean: Right? And it’s crazy because I’ve done the math on this and the prognosis for the second cancer was six percent and if you add in both of those cancers the chances of me surviving both of those cancers is equivalent to winning the lottery four times in a row with the same numbers. So it’s impossible.
Erik: Are you just like … how do you react to that? So overwhelming you just must be in disbelief right? Like you’re stunned, what?
Sean: Often times I am. You know often times I’ll lay in bed and wake up in the morning and just think to myself A, how lucky I am and then B, how different things could have been.
Jeff: And we’ve never really gone here on this podcast before, but where does your faith come in to play with any sort of faith based commitment that you have or …
Erik: Or nothing at all, who knows?
Jeff: Or not but was that something? Were you brought up in a secular home and then did that play into your parent’s maneuvering or yours?
Sean: I think it was both, my mom was raise Catholic my dad was raised Protestant, I was raised Methodist so kind of in the middle and I definitely think my faith has had something to do with me being alive but I also don’t want to say it’s a silver bullet you know. Prayer didn’t get me through, faith didn’t get me through. I think it was a combination of pretty much everything. It was kind of like the Perfect Storm, the movie the Perfect Storm but in a good way. So I think it was modern medicine, family support, prayer and just an inner will to not give up.
Just an inner will to keep moving forward and again go one day at a time to make those days become a habit as opposed to focusing on the negatives and here’s actually this just hit me too, I think what happened was the second time around I wasn’t focused on not dying I was focused on living?
Jeff: Because you have this prior experience?
Erik: What does that mean? You wanted to do things, right? Living?
Sean: Yeah, I wasn’t focused on not dying, I was focused on living. So I wanted to focus on, I wanted to put my energy and my focus on what I wanted not the avoidance of something I didn’t want.
Erik: And at that time it was maybe getting your licence and going out on dates and …
Sean: To be normal, yeah.
Erik: To be a kid. And were you diagnosed, or they gave you 14 days?
Sean: They gave me two weeks to live, yeah. 14 days to live the second time.
Erik: And then what’s the medically induced coma? They put you into a medically induced coma?
Sean: So the second time around because no one’s ever had those two cancers before the doctors didn’t know what was going to happen. They were like alright, well here’s a chemical cocktail let’s just give him everything we have but if there was anything good about having the second cancer it’s that a couple of the chemotherapy treatments I was receive were also good for Hodgkin’s lymphoma so if there was any residual left of the Hodgkin’s it was being killed by the second cancer’s treatment.
Jeff: They were just napalming your ass, right?
Sean: I know. If you turn out the lights I actually glow still.
Jeff: Just dropping the napalm on you. I mean and the reason I asked that earlier that as some point in your mind as you’ve grown and anyone who’s in your orbit has to say the universe is a really interesting energy vortex and to throw you this twice, come on. You know? Like that falls out of the realm, you even mentioned the math but that falls out of the realm of possibilities really, it does. So then … so you got to this numeric anomaly, really. I mean this is what happens. You survive, you beat the 14 days everybody’s like holy shit, he’s still alive.
And then do you regain your normalcy at some point? And when does the I’m gonna basically stand up even stronger and more of a badass than I ever could have imagined?
Sean: What hit me was did you go back to normal? I think I went back to finding a new normal. You know I don’t think I could have gone back to who I was, knowing what I had seen going through those two cancers. You know because you learn a lot about yourself, obviously when you’re climbing you learn a lot about yourself because you spend a lot of time alone but when you’re going through your cancers and you’re faced with your literally looking in the mirror and you’re walking hand in hand with the grim reaper and you learn a lot about yourself because you have to go inside and see what you want to fight for.
Erik: What about the loss side? Like when I went blind I remember afterwards always fearing, there was some fear like what if I lose my hearing now? Like what if I lose more? Is life just a succession of losing things and I would be like almost a trauma in my brain. Did you feel anything like that, like is this going to happen again and again and again?
Sean: It still comes up. I go in for a checkup once a year and when I was put in remission I went in once a month for a check up, you know do blood work, cat scan, whatever. And then it was every three months, then every six months and then once a year and because no one’s ever had these cancers I still go in once a year and I tell my friends, I’m look hey I’m gonna be a little different until I get the results back because everybody sits there and worries about it, like you said my family, my friends, everyone.
But again what good does it serve me to sit there and worry about it? I could hop in my car and drive home and potentially, knock on wood, get into a car accident and life’s over. So why would I want to worry about that stuff? Yes it does happen but I just want to constantly focus on the positives. I want to constantly focus on what I want, not what I want to avoid.
Erik: So you’re saying that was a proactive decision at that young age?
Sean: I think so because the second time around I was like, well shit I got the first cancer, I don’t want to go through it again. You know I’m gonna lose my life, I’m gonna lose my friends, I’m gonna lose my hair. My life is gonna be over until I get better again.
Erik: Did you lose your hair again?
Sean: Again, yeah.
Erik: You’re like round two.
Jeff: Eric, you don’t know this but Sean’s got a super coiffed nice head of hair right now.
Sean: I need a haircut.
Jeff: Yeah I mean but it grew in well my man.
Sean: It did, it did, yes.
Jeff: He’s got twice as much hair as you do.
Erik: Now I’ve also heard this phenomenon, I read something where it’s like you survive improbable things you have a sense of almost like invincibility like I can survive anything.
Sean: You know I had that when I was in college but I think everybody has that in college because I was like I turn into Bulluchi from Animal House, I mean I had a blast. But I you know, getting older now I understand the ramifications of my actions and I’m starting to think oh I’m 44 years old now and I’m getting nervous about things and what about my savings? What about the future because now I’m finally starting to wrap my head around the fact that when I was younger going through the treatments there were nights I went to bed honestly not knowing if I was going to wake up the next morning.
So my future literally was right then and there potentially maybe the next day. But now I’m like, okay I’m getting married, I’m thinking about kids if I can have kids and I’m thinking about the future and I’m having a hard time with that still. I’ll have some … not anxiety attacks or anything but just some nervousness and I just calm myself down and think alright, well just be here because you never know what’s going to happen.
Erik: Am I reading into it like, okay to plan out a mountain which is short term you know, Everest three months is maybe in some ways easier than planning out long term future with your fiance, let’s say or with things that you know where you’re gonna be around for the next 30, 40, 50 years.
Sean: I would say probably. Because if you look at marriage you know you’re worried about other people.
Jeff: Yeah, climbing it’s you.
Jeff: Yah, it’s you. And you’re sitting at the south call and you’re freezing your nuts off, well that’s you. But now you’re thinking well, I’ve got somebody else that’s on the rope with me now and there’s a lot more weight with that.
Erik: How do you get your mind in that mode that you’re talking about as a teenager? How do you get back, what does life look like when you go back to the new normal? Or go to this new normal?
Sean: I guess the new normal would be at that moment whatever I wanted it to be. Every morning I wake up, I tell myself, literally the past is gone, there’s nothing I can do about it. The future for me may never come, tomorrow may never get here, so no matter what happens today, today’s the best day ever. So every morning I wake up, I have some affirmations, I tell myself today’s the best day ever.
And regardless of what happens, I’m still alive and I’m still looking at the flowers from the top as opposed to the roots, so no matter what happens today it’s the best day I’m ever going to have.
Jeff: Okay, so where did the climbing and adventuring come in?
Erik: Yeah how do you from Ohio to the South Pole?
Jeff: [crosstalk] Well from your death bed in Ohio and then creating you went to alive right and you were just engorging basically, right? Just taking it all in. Like I’m alive and I’m just going to eat life up. But then, then the climbing had to come in there. Who planted that seed and where did it come from?
Sean: Well first of all I started off molecular bio in college, I thought I was going to splice genes and cure cancer by playing God and fixing everything and everyone in the world. I took immunology and organic chemistry and it’s very difficult to pass those courses when you’re partying too much and not opening a book and not studying.
Jeff: Or sober.
Jeff: I know that.
Sean: So I took the GRE, went to this grad school ,wanted to be a psychologist for cancer patients. And there was a moment in my life when I was working down there, I was working three jobs, working through grad school when I decided okay, well this isn’t who I want to be, I want to be someone else and I wanted to look back at my life and I realized that I had so any issues from my cancer because you can’t go through something traumatic without it changing who you are.
But the greatest thing about life is that you can choose how you want to see that. I think one of the greatest freedoms in life is the freedom of choice. You can choose your perspective, you can always choose your own perspective. So, when I was in working for my masters and my doctorate, I was going to be a psychologist for cancer patients when I also realized oh hey, I have my own issues.
Like the old analogy when you’re taking off on a plane, if oxygen masks deploy help yourself first before you help somebody else because otherwise you pass out and die so I decided I had to help myself. Focused on what I was doing, everything that I went through with the cancers and then I realized that I wanted to help people touched by cancer and give them something I never had which was hope.
Erik: In a more direct way than doing research, you’re saying?
Sean: Exactly. Exactly and I thought if I worked in a hospital system I would only be able to help the people in the hospital system. So after doing research if found no cancer survivor had climbed Everest and I said I can use that as a 29,000 foot platform for hope. And that’s not just working in a hospital system that would give me a platform to scream around the world hey if some schmuck with one lung is climbing Everest after surviving two terminal cancers you can do anything you want to.
Erik: This is not “normal” behavior, a person with one lung saying I’m gonna go climb Everest.
Jeff: I mean did you read Into Thin Air or what was it that got you … what happened? Did you all of a sudden just be like I’m gonna go climb Everest?
Sean: It’s a good thing I didn’t read Moby Dick, right? I’d go hunting whales. I did read, I actually have a friend, he let me read Into Thin Air. I started to read a bunch of stuff on Everest and initially I thought maybe I could run across the country and visit local hospitals and share my survivorship story with the patients which I still want to do within the next five years. Run from like LA to New York or something and just visit hospitals and talk to patients.
But I wanted something bigger and something that no one had ever done before and that’s why after doing a bunch of research I just came up with Everest and was like alright, let’s start with the top. Like you’re gonna go big, right? Do it big?
Erik: Then you’ve gotta start training obviously and learning about how to do it safely.
Sean: Exactly and I was living in Florida at the time, going to University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
Jeff: Dude, what is up? You were living in Florida with one lung and you were like I just wanna go climb Everest. Did you go to Alaska, did you do any other climbs before you went to Nepal?
Sean: The highest mountain I climbed before I went over to Nepal was Albert.
Erik: Albert in Colorado, the tallest peak in Colorado.
Jeff: How? Wow, man.
Sean: 14 and a half thousand.
Jeff: Holy cow, okay. Way to shoot for the stars, bro.
Sean: But everybody told me I was nuts.
Erik: Okay but you obviously trained. Oh, yes, yeah let’s get into that. So did doctors say this is not a smart, not a wise decision?
Sean: My oncologist told me to go for it. I had a couple of specialists tell me to don’t even think about it. I had pretty much the entire climbing industry tell me I was crazy. We actually have a quote from somebody who said, because I lived in Estus Park, he said “eight months in Estus Park does not a Himalayan climber make.” So when I got to base camp that was my personal record so every step past base camp was my PR.
Erik: How did you feel about base camp? How were you feeling?
Sean: I felt awesome. I felt fantastic except getting up to base camp you’re not acclimatized, I think there was a 90 year old lady who just zipped right by me, I was like, oh god I’m never gonna make it.
Erik: So every day after that you’re setting personal records going higher and higher.
Sean: So every day was the best day I’ve ever had, right?
Jeff: Yeah and then were there times, we’ve been on Everest and I know that even with both my lungs there was times when you’d try to listen to your body and think my body’s conspiring against me right now. You know?
Erik: I remember lying flat on my back and my heart is pounding against my ribs.
Jeff: You can hear it in your ears.
Erik: Like pounding so hard. I remember thinking this could not be good.
Jeff: You were sitting still, right?
Erik: Oh no I’m lying on my back.
Jeff: I know, I could hear your heart beating. No, but so my question to you Sean is you know so you’re at 26,000 feet and nothing’s working right for a person with two lungs.
Jeff: Yeah, everybody’s crapping the bed. Were there moments then when you were thinking to yourself that there is potentially a very good likelihood that my one functioning lung is gonna quit and then I’m gonna be a permanent fixture up here?
Sean: I was actually at camp three on the way up, so the Lhotse Ice Face and still to this day I think it was partially cerebral edema, I came down with cerebral … I couldn’t move the next day. I had dinner the night before, I vomited dinner up and I could still see the orange cubes of the carrots, the green peas, the spiral noodles, the beef chunks, nothing was digested. So I could see all that. And I slept on oxygen.
Jeff: So can we now, thanks.
Sean: What’s that?
Jeff: We can see it now too.
Erik: Yeah, I can envision it in my head.
Sean: It was awful. With a little bile mixed in there, you know?
Sean: But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I stayed in Camp three on oxygen for that entire day and the next night and then went up to camp four the day after that and I felt completely fine. Everybody else who was on the same expedition schedule as us went from camp three to camp four when I couldn’t leave three, they went up from camp four, the weather turned bad, they came back down. So they lost their window.
But no one summited on the 15th, I went up on the 16th and the weather was perfectly fine.
Jeff: Another little sort of galactic touch for you dude.
Sean: Exactly I think you know …
Jeff: You should be a minister. Ordained.
Sean: I know right? I think kind of tongue in cheek I have the world’s worst good luck.
Erik: The world’s …
Jeff: The world’s worst good luck.
Sean: But I also have a fleet of guardian angels working on overtime and they’re all fighting hey, I’m done with this guy.
Erik: What was your summit day like?
Sean: It was beautiful. I mean it was a slight wind, slight breeze and it was just absolutely gorgeous.
Jeff: But then when you got down obviously there was this massive, like you said a 29,000 foot platform and then you realized that you had the opportunity to impact a lot more people now. So was that something that you knew before you took off on this journey? Like if I do this either way I’m gonna spread my wings and really just try and touch as many lives as possible?
Sean: You know I think, obviously the goal was to make it to the top. But the number one goal was to come home, not in a pine box, you know and to come home alive, but it was to enjoy the journey, it was to enjoy the trip and every step I made on the mountain like I said was my PR altitude record. And even just being on the mountain, I trained for eight or nine months, that was it. I did something that I do not suggest anybody doing and looking back on it it was crazy. It was absolutely nutty.
Jeff: It was a little bit fringy.
Sean: Yeah, I mean you can tell me I’m an idiot, that’s fine, I’ve heard it many times. But I had a flag that was about this big, you know two feet by two feet that had names of people touched by cancer and it was the first mountain I climbed that I wasn’t doing it for myself it was doing it for other people and I left that flag up there basically commemorating the struggle for cancer patients worldwide and I wanted to I guess be a beacon of light for people fighting for their lives, fighting through cancer in such dark times.
I wanted to give them hope and I wanted to just let them know hey, like I said earlier if some guy is out there doing these crazy things you can survive cancer, you can go through, there is hope.
Erik: So I mean just biologically though with one less lung, you’re up there in a place where you only have a third of the oxygen. I mean do you know whether you were struggling more than someone else or were you just not even thinking about it or it just it is what it is?
Sean: My baseline for climbing was, started with one lung. So I don’t know what it’s like to climb with two lungs. I just know that I believe in the mind body connection, I visualize myself on top every night for nine months when I was training. And I smelled the ozone I heard the styrofoam crunching of the sound of the snow beneath my feet. I heard the wind blasting by my face, I felt the sun’s radiation on my face. So when I left camp four, I knew I was already on top in my mind. And I kept telling myself every step I had a mantra. I said the higher I go, the stronger I get, the higher I go the stronger I get. And I really think that with affirmations you can say something over and over and over again and truly believe it and your mind believes what you’re thinking.
Jeff: So let me just get you to surgically break that down real quick because I think it’s easy to say a mantra but in order for it to really get manifested, you do have to have full buy in and did you really believe what you were telling yourself or were you trying to trick yourself? Or is the answer yes? Because I find that real interesting.
Sean: D, all of the above.
Jeff: Yeah. You know what I mean? Like …
Sean: I do and I think it starts with how people make choices every day and if you’re going through life and say me, going up Everest. It didn’t start on Everest, it started nine, 10 months before. So I started developing a pattern because I think human beings are products of repetition. We are a representation of our repetition, so whatever we do every day kind of define who we are and the choices that we make define who we are.
And I think that when I was on Everest I made those choices, I kept telling myself that over and over and over again so I don’t want to say the confidence was there but the confidence was within me to keep pushing forward. And it didn’t’ begin on the mountain, it began months and months maybe years ago when I started making micro changes and making those conscious decisions to get me where I wanted to go. So I think a long time ago I bought into it and on the mountain I did have those moments where I was … where I had self doubt, and I did have those moments where I was just like oh shit, what am I doing? I could die here. This could be my last day. But I was also so focused on making it to the top for those other people touched by cancer, they kept me going.
They’re the ones that carried me to the top, I didn’t get up there by myself.
Erik: So you think that gives you a kind of strength as well when you sort of connect with that community out there?
Sean: Oh for sure, for sure. I get my inspiration from knowing that there are people in the hospital system and at home, fighting for their lives, going through cancer knowing that they don’t have the choice like we do when we’re out on expeditions to pick up the satellite phone and say hey, I’m done, get me the hell out of there. And we can always go back to the mountain because as far as I know Everest has been there for at least a few years.
People fighting for their lives can’t pick up their cell phone, they can’t pick up a satellite phone and say hey, you know, I’m gonna take a day off. I quit today, because they would die. So when I think of somebody sitting, laying in the hospital bed and they’re putting up with what they have to put up with, I can choose to put up and battle the elements.
Erik: And my inner demons I suppose too. So you continued to climb though, you continued to … and climbed the seven summits so you continued to battle and to do an iron man and to go to the south and north pole, right? So how long did that take you?
Sean: The …
Erik: What do they call that, the Grand Slam I think?
Sean: Yeah, which people joke about it sounding like a Denny’s breakfast platter.
Erik: Yeah, sounds like the sunny side up.
Jeff: Moons over Miami.
Sean: Makes no sense even where they got that from.
Jeff: It would be cooler if it was called the Moons over My-Hammy. But it’s called the grand slam. But to Erik’s point were you … did you know when you did Everest that this was going to be a possibility or did you just say let’s just keep this trajectory going?
Sean: I didn’t even think about doing the seven summits after I got off of Everest because when I came back and I started doing some speaking I tried to get my story into the news, the media but it just wouldn’t catch on for numerous reasons we can talk about later. But then I decided okay, well there are seven peaks. Someone has done the seven summits, numerous people have done the seven summits, well alright let’s take a flag to the highest point on every continent.
So that’s when I decided alright, let’s keep going. Let’s reach around the world now and try to visit local hospitals. I visited hospitals in Russia, I visited hospitals in Argentina, I visited hospitals in Africa, you know all over the place and that’s what keeps me going I think, helping.
Erik: Did you meet people with cancer and kids with cancer?
Sean: All over, yeah. There was one I met in Sydney, at the Sydney children’s hospital I was in touch with him via email probably once or twice a week for a few months and then all of a sudden nothing. You know and then I get an email from his mom saying that he passed away so I can’t tell you how many times that happens and that just kills me inside but she wrote to me saying hey don’t be sad that he’s passed away because every day he woke up he said, look Sean’s giving me some hope I want to be like him when I grow up.
So if I can inspire one child like that, you know to move forward, to have hope and to enjoy the days that that person has alive, I’m doing something right.
Erik: So now that when you’re finished with this great adventure although you’re still adventuring of course but how do you extend that mission?
Sean: Well, that’s why I’m here to talk with you guys, to help share my story because if my story doesn’t’ get out then I don’t think it helps anybody. I think we all have two ears and one mouth for a reason and everyone on earth has a story to tell and if we just listen twice as much as we speak we can literally learn something from every single person on the planet because everyone has a different perspective.
Jeff: Do you feel though, I mean hope seems to be the center part of your message, right? And it’s that sort of purpose driven life and I think if I were to put myself in sort of a non-climber and pull myself away from the No Barriers universe and I look at somebody like you and I just say that dude’s a freak of nature. He’s had these anomalies happen and then he has experienced things that I can’t even imagine experiencing and then he’s harnessed it in a way that I can’t even imagine.
But what I want to know from you is do you feel like you’ve taken an abnormal life and turned it into a normal life and is that because that’s the way you’re wired or do you feel like this sort of blessed opportunities in life that you’ve had have just sort of made you who you are?
Sean: I definitely thing the latter, I definitely think that I’m totally blessed with my life. I also think that I would go crazy working a desk job and working in a cubicle nine to five every day. I think I would go crazy. I have that adventurous spirit, I’ve always been adventurous, but the people out there who are thinking I could never do this, again it goes back to making a decision when you have a choice, you make micro changes to get where you want to go. So many people are fixated on what’s comfortable. And life begins outside your comfort zone but fear holds them back.
Erik: What are those micro changes that you made though? What are those, I’m curious because those are hard to quantify sometimes?
Sean: Okay, so for example I actually put together a program if you want to go to thenext7days.com, the number seven. Thenext7days.com. It’s a program for cancer survivors but it will work for anybody. And it’s a week long program where you wake up on Monday and you don’t turn on the news in the morning and you don’t turn on the news before you go to bed.
Because what you’re doing there which is like 90% of everybody, they turn on the news when they wake up, turn on the news before they go to bed, you’re book ending your day on a negative note. You know, wake up in the morning and get on your phone or your computer or google an inspirational video. Start your day off with that.
Erik: So the news you think may be unhealthy to “healing.”
Sean: Oh completely. I mean yeah, but if you do watch it just filter out the stuff and pay attention to how it makes you feel.
Erik: I really like that though, so these are very tangible things.
Sean: Very tangible and at the end of the day get a journal and just try it for two weeks. You will reprogram your brain. Write down five things that you’re grateful for and then journal about one of them. And not what you did but how it made you feel because I think that helps you tap into your value system on how … if you feel a certain way, you’re motivated by feelings. We’re human beings not human doings.
So if human beings can be motivated by their values, you can tap into that value system by journaling on one of those five things that you’re super happy about, how it made you feel. That way you can tap into your value system and you can motivate yourself intrinsically forever. So that way you’re book ending your day on a positive note. So on Tuesday you do something different but you continue doing Monday into Tuesday.
Tuesday you make choices, like say you’re at work and you’re going for the donut or the apple. You know which one is better for you but everybody’s going to go for the fried piece of dough, I mean it tastes great, I do the same thing. But take a bite of it, dump it in the garbage time and then go for the appel because you’re not gonna go dumpster diving for a doughnut, you’re gonna go for the apple because you’re hungry.
But if you start making conscious choices.
Jeff: Micro changes.
Sean: Exactly, micro changes. Start right now. People are always saying, oh I’ll start Monday on my diet. No, bull crap. No, start right now.
Erik: If you’re in a dark place do you think that still applies? Does it still work, like if somebody is like I’m not grateful for anything.
Sean: I think so because you will reprogram your brain to focus on the positive aspects. Because as opposed to going to bed turning on the news and you’re thinking man, look at all this rape, look at all this murder, look at all these drugs, look at what the government’s doing, look at the … the world’s falling apart! But if you just ignore that or get rid of it and focus on the positives or if you do watch the news pick out the good stuff.
But if you at the end of the day, write down things that you’re grateful for, you will slowly begin to reprogram your brain, you will make different neural connections to focus on the positives. You will become a more positive person.
Erik: And I’m torn on this hope thing. I mean obviously I’m a believer in hope right? But hope, you could be as hopeful as possible and you still could die. Right?
Sean: True, very true.
Erik: So what’s your insights there? I mean it’s not the panacea right but do you think it actually is a game changer, like it actually puts the odds in your favor?
Sean: I think it does because once you lose hope what do you have left? You can still be hopeful but know that you’re gonna be dead, well for me, as an example I was given 14 days to live. I had hope that I was gonna live past 14, I wanted to get 15. And then 15 to 16, 16 to 17, 17 to 18.
If you learn to enjoy the moments you know you’re not gonna let any fun moments pass you by. You have opportunities and people need to realize that there are no challenges, there are no obstacles, there are only opportunities base on the perspectives that you have. And if you slowly reprogram your brain based on those micro changes you will slowly see that everything is an opportunity.
Now don’t get me wrong, driving here somebody cut me off, I flipped them off, I yelled a couple things you know but you get it out of your system ,get it over with. But the majority of your life if you want to, like I said you have the choice. The majority of your life can be positive.
Erik: Are you healed? Do you think you’re healed now? I mean because I know that’s a big part of your message too.
Sean: Again, I go in once a year for a checkup so I think for the rest of my life I’m gonna be in remission. I would never say cancer free.
Jeff: You hope. You hope.
Sean: I hope. Yeah.
Erik: And what about the psyche around that though?
Sean: It does eat me up that one time a year that I get a check up but the other times of the years I do as much as I can and live as much as I can.
Jeff: Wow that’s … I mean that’s what we all need to hear right because it’s easy to become complacent and just kind of roll through things and then to listen to you and listen to your fervor and just your general appreciation for opening your eyes in the morning, that’s a reminder that everybody needs. It’s easy to forget that.
Sean: Oh for sure.
Jeff: Do you feel like there’s places that you could obviously still maybe even smile a little bit harder or …
Sean: Oh of course.
Jeff: Or just breathe a little bit deeper in a way?
Sean: Yeah, I mean I’m still stressed, taxes, rent, mortgage, car payments. Whatever it might be. Insurance payments.
Jeff: Do you have to remind yourself like I need to drink my own kool-aid in a way? To a certain extent?
Sean: Yeah, sometimes I do. This morning I woke up and I thought to myself I haven’t written in my journal for a while, so I picked it up, wrote down five things I was grateful for. And I was thinking, many you know I gave a lot of key note talks and I’m telling people these things, I’m not doing them myself. I haven’t done it in a while and it was like, shit I have to do it myself, exactly, I need to drink my own koolaid.
Jeff: Yeah, because it’s powerful.
Sean: Yeah. I just need to do it myself as well.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.h
Sean: It needs to become a habit.
Jeff: Well, amazing Sean.
Erik: Yeah, and tell us about your film, True North?
Sean: Oh yeah, it’s going across the country, it was just nominated for an Emmy, it’s called True North, a Sean Swarner story and the production company was the Workshop, based out of Philadelphia and they did a phenomenal job and somehow made 80 below look somewhat tolerable.
Erik: Where were you at 80 below?
Sean: The north pole. That was awful. 80 below and it was 90% humidity which is just incomprehensible.
Erik: Ew, that’s the worst. Oh gosh.
Jeff: Did they follow you around beyond just that journey, if it’s your story are they seeing you in your day to day?
Sean: They did, they actually went to a hospital when I was getting my checkup, my oncologist was there and then we went around to different places across the country and collected names for the flag that I took to the north pole. If you watch it make sure you have a box of tissues.
Erik: Where do you see it? Where can people see it?
Sean: I think it’s on PBS right now and it might be on Amazon now i have to check with the production company but they can go to True North doc, like documentary, TrueNorthdoc.com.
Erik: Cool I can’t wait to see it. Hear it.
Sean: It’s unbelievable.
Erik: I can’t wait to hear it.
Jeff: That’s blind humor.
Erik: A little blind humor coming at you.
Jeff: Sean, thanks for being with us, my man.
Erik: Yeah thank you.
Jeff: You’re really, I know you hear it all the time but you’re an inspiration.
Sean: Well I appreciate that.
Jeff: Yeah, you’re somebody that we can all sort of, it’s an eye opener. Like yes sir, that’s how you’re supposed to do it. So thank you for …
Erik: That was my line it’s an eye opener. Jeff you stole my line.
Jeff: I know but I didn’t want you to be over the top with your blind humor.
Sean: More blind humor?
Jeff: Awesome Sean, thanks buddy. Well Erik.
Erik: That’s amazing. I mean what I like, because I really like to understand this process and I wanted to ask him throughout the whole interview what these micro changes are.
Jeff: Well you did.
Erik: And then we really got into it and that’s really stuff that people can take away. It’s very concrete stuff. There’s this vet that has been part of the No Barriers programs and he calls them little acts of courage and they’re just sort of in that similar vein, you know? It’s little things that you do to begin to express the best version of yourself but you know it’s just little things like turn off Fox news or CNN and focus on what you want to grow. Those are hard little steps.
Jeff: Right because it’s easy to say what Sean said but what he gave us was the opportunity to see these hard solid take home maneuvers that you can take throughout your day to make these changes because it’s those little changes turned into big paradigm shifts in the end, right?
Erik: Yeah and you get like double cancer and that sort of becomes something that illuminates maybe moving in a certain direction.
Jeff: You mean like radioactively?
Erik: No. But you don’t have to go through that I think. For our audience you don’t have to go through that insane trauma, right? You can make those little changes. You don’t need the massive wake up call.
Jeff: I also like how Sean talked about his new normal and we’ve heard that from a few guests but Sean really really eloquently put it like he got to reinvent himself and decide who he was going to be and we’ve heard that as a continuing theme but Sean really just sort of took the script and his narrative and turned it into what he wants. I think this big mountain Everest might be a good platform so whatever man. I’m just gonna train and I’m gonna take it all the way to the top.
That’s reinvention right there. Like saying I’m not a climber right now but I’m gonna learn to be. And why? Because I want a platform to be able to impact and touch other people. That’s reinvention. And I think anybody is capable of reinventing and then like you said with these small tangible micro changes that he referenced.
Erik: And then yeah you have gratitude and you see your life as a gift. Every day.
Jeff: Every breath.
Erik: Is a gift. We’re really lucky to have folks like Sean as part of our No Barriers community. If you want to learn more about No Barriers and be around people like this, be around this really supportive community go to NoBarrierUSA.org, come to our upcoming summit in June, it’ll be in Lake Tahoe and we’ll have 1000 people together just soaking up each other’s positivity, motivation and living this No Barriers life, so I hope you’ll join us. Jeff?
Jeff: Yup. No Barriers.
Erik: No Barriers, man.
Jeff: See you next time, thank you.
Dave: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show notes can be found at NoBarriersPodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for our intro song which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Chafer. Sound design editing and mixing by Tyler Cottman. Graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelley, thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.