Breckenridge cancer survivor tackles world’s highest peaks |

Breckenridge cancer survivor tackles world’s highest peaks

summit daily news
Special to the Daily Sean Swarner at the Summit of Mt. Everest

BRECKENRIDGE – Breckenridge resident Sean Swarner has already climbed seven of the world’s highest peaks. Now his sights are set on an eighth – Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua New Guinea. It’s a mountain Swarner describes as surrounded by political unrest, rebel factions and even cannibals. The trek is planned for this summer.

“I’m aware of the danger, but it doesn’t come into play when making the decision to climb – safety is always an issue,” Swarner said.

He also noted he’ll have a local guide – “Nothing is going to happen with the rebels as long as you pay them off and barter with them,” he said.

This is Swarner’s second attempt at the climb. If he makes it to the top and back to Breckenridge safely, he’ll be one summit away from climbing the nine highest peaks on the globe.

He’ll also likely be the first cancer survivor to do it.

As a two-time cancer survivor, Swarner as a child had little hope he’d live to be an adult. Now 34, he’s using his new lease on life to inspire others – cancer patients, but also “really anyone with a pulse” – to live with passion and fire.

His main goal is to climb the nine tallest peaks in the world and plant a flag at each summit. The flag reads: “Dedicated to all those affected by cancer in this small world!! Keep Climbing!!” In doing this, he hopes he’ll motivate others and be a catalyst for change. He’s already climbed Mount Everest (Asia), Mount McKinley/Denali (North America), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mount Vinson Massif (Antartica), Mount Kosciuszko (Australia), Mount Elbrus (Europe) and Mount Aconcagua (South America).

Swarner said he recognizes people in the climbing world may have different opinions on what the nine tallest peaks are, but this is his personal list. And climbing Carstensz will be another step for Swarner toward completing “the Ultimate Adventure Grand Slam” and an opportunity to spread his message: Hope. The next climb on his list will be Mount Cook in New Zealand, followed by hiking the North and the South Poles.

When Swarner was 13, he was diagnosed with Advanced Stage IV Hodgkins Disease and given three months to live. After a year-long struggle with chemotherapy, he was in remission by age 15.

But at a doctor’s checkup, an almost 16-year-old Swarner was diagnosed with a completely different form of cancer – Askin’s Sarcoma. A tumor had attached to his right lung, and he was given two weeks to live.

According to Swarner, Askin’s Sarcoma is a cancer that three in one million people get, and it has a 6 percent rate of survival – meaning if 100 people are diagnosed with it, 94 die. Swarner also said he’s the only documented case to have both types of cancer.

“The doctors had no idea what to do,” he said. “There was no set treatment for it.”

On the same day Swarner’s doctors found the tumor, they removed it and put him on chemotherapy. The cancer was so aggressive, the teenager was put into a medically induced coma intermittently throughout his treatment.

“I don’t remember being 16, except one month of radiation I was lucid,” he said.

But Swarner proved doctors wrong again, and lived – he became a normal kid, went to college and planned to become a psychologist for cancer patients. Then he took a step back to consider how cancer shaped his life, and he made a change.

“I became a person who devoted his life to other people,” he said.

Swarner and his brother Seth decided to start The CancerClimber Association in 2001 – a nonprofit organization based out of Boulder that “offers hope through inspiration” by raising funds, putting on programs and visiting people who are touched with cancer “now.” The group’s main aim is to give people the tools needed to overcome cancer – like hope and inspiration. Swarner was the recipient of the Don’t Ever Give Up Award for his work. It was presented by the Jimmy V Foundation and ESPN in 2007.

“Everywhere I go, I meet with cancer patients to share my story,” he said. “I’ve visited hospitals all over the world.”

Swarner said he’s currently raising funds for a mobile camp to visit kids with cancer, since they’re not healthy enough to travel. The CancerClimber Association is also selling “Tiny Climber” stuffed animals as an ongoing fundraiser for its mission. The toys are given to cancer patients, so “kids can talk and play with them.”

And this is where the climbing comes in – Swarner is using his passion for climbing to inspire cancer patients and show them what someone who survived severe illness can do. He was the first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest, and he hopes to be the first cancer survivor to climb the nine tallest mountains on all the world’s continents.

“I’m going for the gusto,” he said.

Having recently moved to Breckenridge, the philanthropist and adventurer is taking advantage of having a ski resort in his backyard.

“It’s the perfect training ground,” he said.

For more information about The CancerClimber Association, visit or e-mail questions to Donations can be made online.

Caitlin Row can be reached at (970) 668-4633 or at

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