In 2000, Richard Deming, MD, trekked to the base camp of Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak. Located in the lofty Himalaya mountains of Nepal, the 29,029-foot Everest can be unforgiving to those who aren’t prepared for harsh weather, craggy terrain and thin air. For Deming, a triathlete who had prepared well, arrival at Everest base camp at 17,590 feet was the achievement of a cherished dream.
In 2011, Deming once again flew to Nepal and trekked to Everest base camp. This time, however, he fulfilled not only his own dream, but those of 14 cancer survivors who accompanied him.
Deming, medical director of Mercy Cancer Center, Des Moines, IA, and director of the Active Cancer Survivor program at the local Y, believes that vigorous exercise has a place in the recovery of cancer survivors. With his friend Charlie Wittmack, a Des Moines attorney, adventure athlete and climber, Deming conceived of an intense, fulfilling physical and emotional experience for cancer survivors.
Wittmack was planning to participate in an event he created and called “The World Tri” – a triathlon that would include swimming England’s Thames River and the English Channel, biking the long distance from northern France to Nepal, then climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest. “We decided that I could bring a group of cancer survivors to meet up with Charlie at Everest base camp, where he would be staying while preparing to go on to the summit,” said Deming. “There, Charlie would help us run the highest-altitude Relay for Life that had ever been run.” Relay for Life, a major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, is a popular event in communities in more than 20 countries – usually, however, they are run at far less than 17,590 feet above sea level.
Fundraising was also a consideration for the trek itself. The cost per person, including roundtrip airfare from Des Moines to Kathmandu, was considerable. Deming made a decision to provide funding for all of the cancer survivors to ensure that cost would not dictate who was able to go and who was not. “I found that once I committed to taking the group to Everest, philanthropy was easy to attract,” he said. The American Cancer Society and other cancer advocacy organizations, health care providers, the Livestrong Foundation, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and many others donated to the adventure that Deming named “Above & Beyond: Cancer Survivors Trek to Everest.”
Cancer survivors who could not make the trip and the families of patients who had died of cancer made donations, too. To ensure that they were represented on the journey, a friend of Deming’s made 300 prayer flags of the type that Buddhists string along the mountain ridges of the Himalaya. Each of the colorful flags was decorated by a survivor or the family of a patient lost to cancer.
The cancer survivors trained hard for months before leaving for Nepal. In the level landscape of Des Moines, they found ways to develop their climbing muscles, such as trekking up and down the stairs at the 29-story condominium building where Deming lives. “I don’t think any of the survivors would describe themselves as an athlete, but their cancer experiences gave them new confidence and a commitment to live their lives more fully, and that fueled them,” said Deming,
The group that arrived in Kathmandu in early April included Deming; 14 cancer survivors, some of whom brought a companion; two writers; a photographer; a yoga instructor; a personal trainer; and an otolaryngologist who helped Deming manage survivors’ medical issues, which were mostly related to travel and altitude.
The survivors, five men and nine women aged 27 to 64, had survived breast cancer, lymphoma, leukemia, prostate cancer, tonsil cancer, sarcoma and a brain tumor. After living those cancer journeys, the survivors didn’t let little things like an artificial knee, an artificial hip or a missing colon stop them from trekking up Everest. “It was beautiful and exhausting,” said Deming. “The survivors were mentally strong and dug deep into their physical resources.”
The upward climb took nine days. “We welcomed each day as a journey of self-discovery and a time to enjoy and learn from a different culture,” said Deming. “We learned much from our Sherpa guides and the gracious, quiet and compassionate way they live. Each day, we made time for reflection, reminding ourselves to be present in the moment and mindful of where we were. We did yoga to center ourselves. With two guitars, a tambourine and a cowbell, we had music all the way.”
Even though Deming had made the trek before, he was struck by the intensity of the group’s emotions. “I expected emotion to run high, but it was amazing to me how immediately and how profoundly everyone recognized how special our trek was,” he said. “We all felt incredibly blessed to be there, to be making yet another difficult but rewarding journey.”
Upon reaching base camp on a snowy, frigid evening, the group received a warm welcome from Charlie Wittmack, who was preparing to complete The World Tri. The survivors slept in their tents, then awoke to a breathtakingly bright day near the top of the world.
After Deming’s group hung their prayer flags, they ran a Relay for Life in the bracing air, with the beauty of the Himalaya all around them. “We were all thinking of the people whose names and decorations were on the prayer flags,” said Deming. “They inspired us.”
Back in Des Moines, Deming and the survivors are still processing all that the trek meant to them. “I found my first trek up Everest to be a life-changing experience, and sharing my second trek with cancer survivors was even more fulfilling,” said Deming. “Helping them fulfill their dreams of physical and emotional wellness made it all even bigger, deeper and more meaningful than before. Sharing that experience in mind, body and spirit has bonded us all for life.”
See videos and photos and read more about the trek and the personal stories of the survivors on The World Tri website.