On the second day of 2017, 40 cancer survivors and caregivers began a journey to Africa with Above + Beyond Cancer, a non-profit organization dedicated to elevating the lives of those touched by cancer to create a healthier world.

In addition to providing weekly cancer survivorship programs in Iowa, the organization also provides survivors with opportunities to challenge themselves physically while broadening their understanding of global cultures and fostering personal growth.

Our journey to Africa consisted of both a medical mission and a physical challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The survivors were men and women ages 20 to 66 from diverse backgrounds with many different types of cancer including lymphoma, sarcoma, breast, prostate, pancreas, testicular, colon, brain and uterine cancer.

Some of the survivors have successfully completed treatment, others are still in the process of receiving treatment for incurable cancer. The common bond of the group is cancer. They are not mountain climbers. They never had Kilimanjaro on their bucket list. They are on this journey, not in spite of their cancer, but because of their cancer. They are on this journey because of the courage and confidence that they gained on their cancer journey and because of their new-found desire to live their lives with purpose and passion.

Our first stop was Nairobi, Kenya. Kenya has a population of 45 million, but only one public cancer center where Kenyans without insurance can receive treatment. It’s at Kenyatta National Hospital. Cancer patients in Kenya must travel to KNH from all over the country, sometimes coming from hundreds of miles. They are responsible for their own room and board while undergoing cancer treatment. For three days we met with patients and staff, learned about the challenges of providing and receiving cancer care in Kenya, and performed a service project. While there, we partnered with the American Cancer Society to help promote the building of a Hope Lodge at KNH for patients who must travel to Nairobi to receive outpatient cancer treatment far from home.

We met with children in the pediatric ward who are receiving cancer care. Several of the survivors on our team have themselves been treated for childhood cancer. Jake, a 22-year-old graduate student, and Ian, a 22-year-old college senior, are both survivors of pediatric sarcomas. Marcus is a 33-year-old survivor of pediatric rhabdomyosarcoma. The Kenyan children and the American men showed each other their scars and shared stories of treatment and of survival.

While at KNH, we also visited the gynecologic oncology ward. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in Kenya. We provided the women, many of whom were receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy, with homemade blankets and toiletry supplies.

On our final night in Kenya, we hosted a dinner conference for more than 100 cancer survivors, physicians and representatives of cancer organizations in Kenya. Survivors from both continents shared stories of courage and hope. Teresa, a 48-year-old breast cancer survivor, and Justin, a 33-year-old brain cancer survivor, each spoke about their experiences being treated in America, hundreds of miles away from the towns in which they lived. Each of them had stayed at an American Cancer Society Hope Lodge while undergoing treatment. Their stories created a vision for what an African Hope Lodge might do to help African patients receiving treatment far from home.

By the end of the evening, the Kenyans and Americans had become friends and allies in the pursuit of compassionate, patient-centered cancer care. Above + Beyond Cancer presented a check for $10,000 to KNH to help build the Kenyatta Hope Hostel.

After an emotional three days in Nairobi, we flew to Tanzania to begin the mind-body-spirit journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

What is it about climbing mountains that captures the imagination and inspires cancer survivors to join an Above + Beyond Cancer journey?  First and foremost, it’s about being part of something bigger than yourself. Cancer survivors don’t truly know if they can make it the summit, but they do know that the journey will transform their lives – just as cancer has transformed their lives. Some challenges come to us uninvited and undesired. Other challenges come to us because we have the courage and confidence to reach above and beyond what we think we can do.

Mount Kilimanjaro is not for the faint of heart. At 19,342 feet, it is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Only half of the climbers who attempt Kilimanjaro will make it to the summit. Our route requires six days of steady climbing to reach the top.

On Jan. 7, we began the trip up the mountain. The first day’s hike ascended through the dense green foliage of Kilimanjaro’s cloud forest. I walked behind Christina, a 34-year-old breast cancer survivor. Christina was supposedly cured of breast cancer in 2013 after having undergone a lumpectomy of the right breast, chemotherapy and radiation.  However, she subsequently developed cancer in her left breast. This required bilateral mastectomies, reconstruction, chemotherapy and radiation. She is just one year out from treatment and is still recovering. Premature menopause, caused by cancer treatment, often results in weight gain, muscle loss, weakened bones and diminished stamina.  Christina is on this journey, in part, to regain her strength and her health. Christina knows that climbing this mountain is going to be a physical challenge greater than anything she’s ever undertaken in her life.

On Day 5, we camped at 13,780 feet. Arriving early in the afternoon gave us the opportunity to prepare the prayer flags that we had carried up the mountain for the Relay for Life ceremony that we would conduct on the following day. We brought with us more than 800 prayer flags from home. Each flag is decorated in memory of someone who has died of cancer or in honor of someone who is still on their cancer journey and unable to be with us in person. The stringing of the flags takes much longer than one might think. It’s impossible to string them without reading each one and reflecting on the life that the flag represents.

Barafu Camp (15,287 ft.) was our “base camp” for the final push to the summit. It sits on a steep, rocky and windy slope on the ridgeline that leads up to the summit. The summit of Kilimanjaro (19,342 ft.) is visible from our campsite and the sight of mountaintop gets our juices flowing.

After lunch we raise the prayer flags into the African sky above our camp. They flutter wildly in the wind. We assemble together beneath the prayer flags and participate in a ceremony to honor those whose lives are represented on the flags. Tears stream down our faces as we come together in a group embrace. The power of this moment is palpable. Flying overhead are 800 reasons for our being together on this mountain.

At 11 p.m., we began our climb to the summit. We proceeded slowly and deliberately. Each step takes several seconds. It was cold (well below freezing) and the wind was howling with gusts up to 40 mph. It took a while to get accustomed to the darkness, the steepness, the cold and the wind. We slowly developed a rhythm. How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. All you have to do is take one more step. If you can find a reason to take one more step, you can make it to the top. I walked with Christina through the night. She fell down often on the steep terrain, but she got back up each time and found the strength to take one more step.

On Jan. 12, just after sunrise, the entire team stood at the top of Kilimanjaro. The guides tell us that they have never seen a group with such a success rate. I get choked up just thinking about it. There is nothing that compares to being with a group that has come together around a cause and a higher purpose. Jonathan Haidt in his book, “The Righteous Mind,” describes what he refers to as “the hive hypothesis.” He writes, “We have the ability under special circumstances to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves temporarily and ecstatically in something larger than ourselves.”

The summiting of Kilimanjaro was certainly an accomplishment, but it really wasn’t the reason our team came together in the first place. Above + Beyond Cancer exists because cancer exists and because cancer causes suffering and death. We believe that telling the stories of courage and compassion of cancer survivors on this journey can bring attention to the worldwide burden of cancer. These stories help advocate for more funding of research, greater access to care and an enhanced focus on quality of life.  Together, we can change the world.  Above + Beyond, indeed!

This was published by the Des Moines Register March 11, 2017. http://dmreg.co/2ocye3s 

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