As Corey McMordie makes his way up Africa’s highest peak for days on end from sunrise to sunset, he’s got plenty to keep his mind occupied. He thinks of the sacrifices of time, energy and distance from family made by those who help him up the mountain, and the commitment of funding by organizations like the American Cancer Society that help provide scholarships for cancer survivors to experience such a life-altering journey.
He can’t help but think of his fear of heights, spending the more precarious moments on the trail nervously gripping on to the shoulders offered up by the Tanzanian guides at 14,000 feet and counting.
Through the jungles, rainforest, high desert and mountain landscapes, surely he thinks about cancer. He is tracing the steps each day of 16 other survivors and hiking in honor of cancer survivors Nina Philipp and Dave Bartemes who had to turn back down the mountain when the challenge proved too grueling. He also has a far-too-personal relationship with the disease.
Corey’s grandfather – a best friend growing up – passed away from a 10-year battle with cancer when Corey was 15. Corey’s mother, Sheri, is a breast cancer survivor. And almost exactly one year after Corey’s father died from pancreatic cancer only three months out from his diagnosis, Corey himself was diagnosed. Although the terrifying C-word was painfully familiar to Corey, it had hardly crossed his mind that it would take over his life at age 27. There he was, with the doctor he knew well from frequent visits to support loved ones, discussing his own Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Corey, now 32 and three years into remission after chemo, radiation and a stem cell transplant, walks each day out here on the long path with victims of cancer and for others. He considers himself a spiritual kind of guy and believes his father and grandfather are able to watch him as he conquers his fears and inspires his group with his courage as he continues to make his way up. He tells of how he has his mother’s strength, his father’s humor and his grandpa’s smile.
“It makes me proud to be his brother,” said Corey’s younger sibling, Drew. “I really respect him and how strong he has always been through all the ups and downs that he has dealt with.”
Today Corey will swallow his pride and allow his teammates to carry his pack.
“They’re like my second family now,” he said with sincerity. “When I was going through chemo treatments, not wanting to get up to start the day, my family’s strength got me through. Now here on the mountain when I don’t think I can go on, these people are here for me to help me get to the next camp.”
Before he’s even reached the top, Corey is already looking toward what the future will bring beyond cancer, beyond the mountain.
“I don’t want this to just be an event,” he told the group at this morning’s announcements. “I want this to be an ongoing journey. I would do anything for all of you, give you the shirt off my back, invite you into my home. I hope we celebrate birthdays and are there for each other for checkup appointments. I hope this will not be the end. You’re like family to me”
One of our group members mentioned that from atop Kilimanjaro, one can see more of the earth than from any other place on the planet. Perhaps it’s possible that Corey can wave to his mother to show her how strong he is.
And maybe from such great heights, he’ll be able to show his grandpa that he still has his smile.