In the spring of 2011, a doctor from Des Moines, Iowa, decided to take a group of cancer survivors – many of them his patients – on a journey to the Himalayas of Nepal where together they would hike for 10 days to the base camp of Mount Everest. Dr. Richard Deming had explored this region previously, and knew the transformative power the land could have on the mind, body and spirit. He also knew it would be extremely challenging for the group members, who were neither trained athletes nor world travelers, but rather ordinary folks who had been affected by cancer in all different ways.
Having worked as a radiation oncologist for multiple decades, Deming understood that adversity could lead to personal growth, and figured that the self-inflicted struggles on the mountainside could possibly have the same powerful results that overcoming cancer had on the survivors. There were many struggles overcome, many tears of joy shed, bonds formed for life, and enough courage and confidence rediscovered to inspire all who followed the story of the journey back home. His instincts were proven right.
Assuming the role of spiritual leader all the way from the small Iowa airport to the world’s tallest mountains on the other side of the planet, Dr. Deming had begun something so far beyond himself and the 14 cancer survivors that joined him on the journey that we could feel the power from our boots to our souls with each step.
This experience was initially intended to be a one-time adventure two years ago, but unbeknownst to Deming when he pursued this idea, it would act as the foundation of Above + Beyond Cancer – a public charity that is doing all it can to make cancer a thing of the past and to ease and inspire the lives of those affected by it. And like all solid foundations, it was strong enough to be built upon as high as it could reach.
The mission of Above + Beyond Cancer is to, “Elevate the lives of those touched by cancer to create a healthier world.” The organization is presently in the midst of its fifth major expedition, which involves over 100 cancer survivors and caregivers running relay-style coast-to-coast across America. Thanks to the brains and energy of the organization’s Executive Director, Charlie Wittmack, and Steve Cannon, who created the concept, this is Above + Beyond Cancer’s most challenging endeavor yet, not only physically but logistically. The foundation has clearly grown from its humble beginnings with decorated vehicles, matching hats and t-shirts and an award-winning film crew on set at all times to document the magic, but the message from Dr. Deming has always stayed the same.
“If diamonds were as plentiful as grains of sand, they would be worthless. If we lived forever, wasting one day would not be a tragedy. But we only have so many days. Living each day with passion and compassion and commitment and authenticity is incredibly valuable. To go through life as a casual observer is a waste.”
Dr. Deming stood upon the sandy beach of Ocean Shores, Washington, as he stated this message to a modest circle that had gathered to support the first day of the coast-to-coast marathon. The group, comprised of cancer survivors who were preparing to run that day, family members, and an ever-growing team who had given up time and their lives back home to ensure the endeavor is as successful as possible, hung on Deming’s every word. They all knew they were there for a common cause, but it wasn’t until Deming began to speak that they were easily able to recall their purpose. Sometimes his words sound like the type of thing you might read on an inspirational card, the type of the seize-the-day nature, but due to the fact that actual lives have changed for the better and mountains have been scaled and pain has been endured, it’s impossible to ignore Deming’s words and not spend some time contemplating them throughout the remainder of the journey. He has seen first-hand adversity lead to personal growth.
Deming dipped the baton that would be passed from runner to runner over the following forty days into the Pacific Ocean. Inside the hollow baton contained pieces of cloth with names of cancer survivors and those who had lost their lives to cancer. It seems both everyone involved in the project and onlookers as well have been affected by cancer in one way or another. With over 600,000 lives being lost to cancer each year in America, it’s an unfortunate connection shared by many.
Deming had arrived to the Seattle area the night before the event kicked off, so late that the rest of the team had already been long asleep. He was one of the first to wake and was the first to run, eventually completing more than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon by the night’s end in his faded old shoes.
He said he does his best thinking while running, and spent a majority of the run remembering patients of his who had lost their lives to cancer, and those who were restricted to wheelchairs and weren’t fortunate enough to use their legs. He calls the pain he endures while running the “privilege of the living.”
The inspiration that pours out from Above + Beyond Cancer programs is incredible, way beyond what Deming had ever imagined.
“I knew the power of the first trip was there for those participating,” Deming said. “But it wasn’t until I get out into the community and I hear from people that I had never met before who knew me, who knew Above and Beyond, who knew the cancer survivors, not because they had a personal knowledge but because of the stories they were able to see and hear and read. And after witnessing that time and again over and over, I realized this truly had a power to help create a healthier world.
“It became in many ways a feeling of obligation to tell this story, and to use the power of the model that we had created not just to transform the lives of those who were on the journeys, but to harness the power that exists in Above and Beyond to try to do the most good for the most people. It was like pulling back would be to waste a natural resource.”
With a third of all cancers in this country being caused by poor diet and lack of exercise, an important element to Above + Beyond endeavors is to show the power and benefits of vigorous physical exercise on the mind, body and spirit. The reason the projects are unique and bold to those who observe is to gain the attention of the public and remind them that cancer remains a real problem in this world, and that 50% of all cancers are preventable and that we can do something about it.
After 40 grueling days, the team of cancer survivors and caregivers will have reached the shore of the Atlantic in Delaware. They will stand upon the infinite grains of sand and understand that their days are precious diamonds, worth more than they ever knew before.