Sean Swarner — Defying the Odds

Sean Swarner — Defying the Odds Sean Swarner

For two-time cancer survivor Sean Swarner, nothing’s impossible. Not even the Explorers Grand Slam.

by Kaylene Chadwell

Completing the Explorers Grand Slam, which includes climbing the highest mountain on every continent and trekking to the North and South Poles, would be an impressive feat for anyone to accomplish. But for someone like Sean Swarner – a two-time cancer survivor with only one functioning lung, who was twice told he had only weeks to live, and who once spent almost an entire year in a medically induced coma – you’d think that achievement would be all but impossible. That is, if you didn’t know Sean. His whole life has been about defying the odds.

At age 13, Sean was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma. He was told he had only months to live, but he made a full recovery. Then, when he was 16, his doctors discovered an Askin tumor on his right lung. This time, they told him he had just 14 days to live. Once again, he defied statistics. He’s believed to be the only person to ever be diagnosed with both types of cancer.

“Cancer, I’ll be honest, was one of the worst things that ever happened to me,” Sean shares in a recent interview with Coping. “But in the same breath, I’ll say it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

You might say that overcoming such incredible odds at a young age gave Sean the tenacity to take on chal­lenges many would deem impossible. For instance, Sean became the first cancer survivor to summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, in 2002. But he didn’t stop there. By 2008, he had completed the Seven Summits, reaching the highest peak on each of the seven continents. And just last month, 15 years after his first Everest summit, he became the first cancer survivor to complete the Explorers Grand Slam.

It was miserable, but it was unbelievable. When I got there, I collapsed on my hands and knees, and I cried like a baby.

At 42 years old, Sean concluded the last leg of the Grand Slam in April – a trek of more than 100 miles to the North Pole. “I got up to the North Pole after seven or eight days of -40° temperatures with the wind chill at -80°,” Sean explains. “Humans are not designed to live and survive in climates like that. It was miserable, but it was unbelievable. When I got there, I collapsed on my hands and knees, and I cried like a baby. It was so overwhelmingly emotional.”

On all of his treks and summits, Sean carries a “Flag of Hope,” emblazoned with names of people touched by cancer.

On his hike to the North Pole, not only was Sean pulling a full sled of supplies through the harsh arctic condi­tions, but he also carried a “Flag of Hope,” emblazoned with 1,960 names of people touched by cancer. “At the bottom of the flag, it said, ‘Dedicated to all those affected by cancer in this small world. Keep climbing,’” he shares. “The flag was in the sled most of the time, and there were so many times when I was getting tired of just pulling this thing. And I realized that whenever I was getting tired of pulling the sled, it almost felt like those people who were with me were pushing me.”


Those people – all the names on his flag – were part of a fundraising cam­paign for several nonprofit organizations. Before Sean set out for the North Pole, he asked for $5 donations through his CrowdRise fundraising page from any­one who wanted to add a survivor’s name to his flag, either a loved one’s or their own. He’s left similar flags on each of the Seven Summits, as well as at the South Pole.

And if carrying out the incredible feat of trekking to the North Pole to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, all while raising money for childhood cancer survivors, wasn’t enough, Sean had one more surprise ready when he reached the Pole. He called his girlfriend from a satellite phone and asked her to marry him. She said yes. “Maybe my next big adventure is going to be marriage,” he says with a laugh.

Sean has an undeniable thirst for life and adventure. No matter what comes his way, he somehow manages to defy the odds and inspire others. He says, “I wake up every morning, and I actually tell myself, there’s nothing I can do about yesterday. Yesterday is the past. Tomor­row might never come, so no matter what happens, today is the best day ever.”

Get Out There and Go Explore

“Life is too precious and short, so get out there and go explore. Take advantage of the second opportunity, the second chance, the second life that we [cancer survivors] have. Don’t be afraid to take chances and try things that you may have been scared to do before but now you have a second lease on life. Go out there and do something.” – Sean Swarner

Sean’s list of accomplishments doesn’t stop with climbing and trekking. He also completed the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, cofounded The CancerClimber Association, and is the author of Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World. He is a motivational speaker, having spoken around the world for corporations, cancer charities, and hospitals, and is a performance and life coach.

Sean Swarner (left) at the North Pole. (Photo by Corbin Johnston)

You can keep up with Sean through his website,, or by following him on Twitter @SeanSwarner.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.

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