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One Mountain Just Isn't Enough
By Matt Meyer
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mercy  medical center des moines

For Dr. Richard Deming, medical director of Mercy Cancer Center and director of Above & Beyond Cancer – a non-profit organization coordinating adventure-based programs for cancer survivors – summiting a mountain has become a somewhat regular occurrence. After reaching Mount Everest base camp in April of 2011, the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in January of 2012, and the most recent adventure in October 2012, you might think this group would be made up of thrill-seeking mountaineers in the prime of their climbing careers. In reality, the team was made up of 19 cancer survivors and 17 support staff, ranging in age from 22 to 72, most of whom had never stepped foot outside of the United States.

They may not be battle-tested mountain climbers, but they are certainly no strangers to overcoming obstacles.

“We know that adversity leads to personal growth. Some of us don’t have enough God-given adversity, so we put mountains in our path,” Dr. Deming said.

The recent October trip marked the most technically difficult journey to date for Above & Beyond Cancer and required considerable training for all participants in the months leading up to departure. Before setting out on the climbing portion of the trip, the group was able to visit a cancer center in Katmandu and observe how little treatment is available for cancer patients in Nepal. Team members described the visit as a very humbling experience. In Nepal, a person with cancer is often viewed negatively and feels a great deal of shame or embarrassment – they certainly do not set out to climb a mountain.

From Katmandu, the group then departed on their quest which involved scaling three unique mountains. The first was called Nagkau Tshang, reaching a height of 16,500 feet. The second mountain, Chukung Ri, was over 18,000 feet. The third, Imja Tse (or Island Peak) is a mountain near Mount Everest and equally as challenging. To reach the final peak at more than 20,000 feet, climbers had to become familiar with using crampons – sharp pointed spikes that strap onto boots and ropes to pull themselves up a nearly vertical 300-foot wall of snow and ice.

As they climbed, the group again carried prayer flags decorated with photographs, drawings and prayers commemorating the lives of individuals who had died of cancer or survivors who weren’t able to make the journey, but were with them in spirit. They strung the flags up along the mountain ridge as a part of Tibetan tradition where the prayers and messages on the flags are shared and carried by the wind around the world. While climbing Imja Tse, the group held an American Cancer Society Relay for Life ceremony as they had done on previous journeys. The first lap celebrates the lives of survivors; the second lap is to remember those who have lost their lives to cancer; and the third and final lap is to unite them in the fight against cancer. At the conclusion of the Relay, each member of the group committed to saving one life from cancer through prevention, early detection and increased funding of cancer research.

To Dr. Deming, the trip meant so much more than the physical challenge. “All of our treks are mind-body-spirit journeys. This one was probably the most spiritual of all of them. Our group of 19 cancer survivors included Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and agnostics. On our way up the mountain we visited temples, monasteries and convents. We participated in Catholic masses, Buddhist prayers and Hindu offerings. We took time each day to explore what the world religions have to say about suffering and compassion in the human condition as seen through the eyes of cancer survivors. AND we climbed three mountain peaks!”

After coming down from the mountains, the group had time to reflect on the parallels between their own personal battle with cancer and completing a journey they had never expected to take. Talking with one of the Sherpas who routinely takes climbers up various mountains in Nepal, a question was asked, “How much gear does one carry with them on the ascent?” He answered, “The climber only carries his heart.” Looking at this group and what they have achieved and overcome – that statement could not ring more true.




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