Sean Swarner was a regular teen from Willard, Ohio, when a deadly diagnosis changed his entire life.
Sean was diagnosed with two deadly, different, and unrelated forms of cancer. Doctors told Sean he had 14 days to live, and after receiving the news of his incredibly poor prognosis, Swarner thought he was doomed. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he eventually went on to prove everybody wrong.
Young Sean Swarner
Sean Swarner was a teen living with his family in Willard, Ohio. At just 13, he learned the devastating news that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. This deadly disease is a type of lymphoma which originates from a specific type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. When Sean was diagnosed he was in the fourth and final stage of cancer and doctors said that he would not live for more than 3 months.
At the time, Sean didn’t really understand what was happening and his parents would just say, “‘Sean is sick.’” Back then, cancer was known as the “C word,” and it was associated with death. The diagnosis was very hard on Sean and even harder on his parents. He knew he was losing his hair and was 60 pounds overweight from the drugs, but though he didn’t fully understand what was happening, he knew it was serious…
Fighting For His Life
“My friends were all worried about what was popular, being with the “in” crowd… while I was fighting to stay alive… I didn’t want cancer to take my life.” There were some nights when Sean would go to bed and he didn’t know if he was going to wake up the next morning.
Then, miraculously, Sean went into remission for 20 months. It wasn’t until he went back in for a follow-up check that he learned something else was wrong. Sean’s parents blatantly asked the doctor, “‘Is it cancer again?’” When the doctor said yes, Sean went into his bed and buried his face in his pillow and bawled his eyes out…
At this point, Sean was 16-years-old and everyone thought he was in the clear. This second form of deadly cancer Sean was diagnosed with was called Askin’s sarcoma. A sarcoma is a cancer that arises from transformed cells of mesenchymal origin, and this type of cancer is extremely rare. Sean couldn’t believe that this was still happening to him after all he’d already been through.
Sean beat Hodgkin’s Disease against many odds, but learning he now had a second type of cancer blew his mind. Doctors told him that these two unrelated cancers were so rare that he was the only person they knew of who has had both Hodgkin’s disease and Askin’s sarcoma. The prognosis of surviving both was the equivalent of winning the lottery four times in a row with the same numbers…
This new type of cancer caused Sean’s right lung to be attacked by a deadly golf ball-sized tumor. This left him with only one fully functioning lung. After the tumor was removed, doctors told Sean he would not live more than 2 weeks. Despite this terrible news and the prognosis of certain death, however, Sean had hope.
Knowing he had survived his first type of cancer, Sean was determined to beat the second. “Maybe it was resilience, maybe it was stubbornness… Being a teenager, every kid’s stubborn… Hormones are kicking in, things are going crazy, but I didn’t want cancer to take my life.” Despite his positivity, Sean would spend the next year of his life in a coma…
Fighting For His Life
When Sean finally awoke from his coma at age 17, he was in the hospital when he saw the Ironman on TV. He thought to himself that if he survived, his goal would be to do that. He decided first though, he was going to start with Mt. Everest. He wanted the highest platform in the world to scream hope. With big hopes and dreams, Sean’s biggest goal, for the time being, was to crawl 8 feet from the hospital bed to the bathroom.
While Sean did not know what fate had in store for him, he did know this: “The human body can live for roughly 30 days without food, 3 days without water, but no human alive can live for 30 seconds without hope.” It was going to be the maxim that steered the course of his life from that point forward…
With his unwavering stubbornness and by a miracle of God, Sean beat Askin’s sarcoma- once again, defying the odds. He knew after overcoming not one, but two, deadly forms of cancer that he could accomplish anything. But, what was next?
Sean’s first priority after overcoming cancer was to graduate high school. To the delight of his parents, and himself, Sean graduated from Willard High School in 1993 and then Westminster College in 1997. Sean was now ready to tackle his next big challenge- climbing Mt. Everest. But, how would he do it with only one functioning lung?
Sean set out to redefine the impossible, by climbing 29,035 feet to the top of Mt. Everest with only one lung! “When I get to the top, I think of all the people who have pushed me up there, all the people fighting cancer, all the people giving me hope and inspiration… That’s why I’m doing it.” On May 16, 2002, Sean successfully climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, but there was still one problem…
Sean really enjoyed climbing Mt. Everest, but he didn’t get his story out to as many people as he had liked, so decided to do the 7-Summits to reach more people. The 7-Summits are the highest points on each of the 7 continents. Sean would need to climb to the top of the highest mountains Africa, Europe, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and North America if he wanted to prove what he could really do…
In July 2007, Sean was featured on ESPN with a 10-minute segment on his life and struggle. Sean explained that he accepted what he feels to be his responsibility as a two-time cancer survivor. Sean decided he wanted to help other people touched by cancer because when he was sick he didn’t have any inspiration. Sean discovered that no cancer survivor had ever climbed Mt. Everest and he wanted to be the first. When Sean reached the top of the mountain, he left a flag with 100 names of people whose lives have been touched by cancer.
On June 19, 2007, Sean Swarner became the first cancer survivor to ascend the 7-Summits of the world. Sean said the people touched by cancer carried him up there and that he didn’t get up there by himself. Sean knew that after defeating cancer twice, no challenge would ever be too great, no peak too high. So, what could possibly be next after achieving such lofty goals?
Becoming The Inspiration
At 42-years-old, Sean decided to conquer the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which meant him trekking to both the North and South Poles. “I’m on the journey to accomplish something no one has ever done before, but also to use it as a vehicle to help people touched by cancer with hope.” But, when it’s 60 below and Sean wants to give up, he says there’s only one thing that inspires him.
When Sean reads those now 2,000+ names of the people battling cancer on his flag, he gets inspired. “I can always call someone to rescue me, but those fighting for their lives don’t have that option.” Now, with the completion of the Explorer’s Grand Slam, Sean still needed to tackle the Ironman.
With the completion of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, Sean is the only person in history to accomplish these feats. After climbing to the top of Mt. Everest, the 7-Summits, the North and South Poles and completing the Ironman World Championship, Sean has redefined the way the world views success. Now, he has one very important piece of advice for others.
Best Piece Of Advice
Sean believes that “You have to teach yourself to focus on the end result before you begin…So you can push past those little thoughts and frustrations that get in your mind, because in your mind, you’re already there.”