Ever since the massive hunk of a mountain known as Mt. Kilimanjaro popped into view on Day 3 of our hike, we’ve had our “eye on the prize.”  Mt. Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano that rises up from the Serengeti plains of eastern Africa.  Unlike Everest, which is part of a huge mountain range, Kili is a solitary mountain that cannot be mistaken for anything else.  It has an identity that is distinct and uncomplicated.

We’ve come here, 19 cancer survivors and 21 caregivers, to blend our distinct and complicated identities into a team.  It really hasn’t taken all that long for us to gel.  Our common blond is mighty powerful glue.

Over the past 3 days of hiking we’ve witnessed a transformation in climate and topography.  We began our hike in the Tanzanian rain forest with thick foliage and a large canopy of trees.  It was hot and humid as we made our way through mud and moisture, monkeys and birds, flowers and thorny brush.  We then ascended out of the rainforest and into the subalpine region of scrawny brush and rock-strewn dry ground.  We started to see evidence of previous eruptions of the now dormant volcano.

Lava “bombs” dotted the landscape.  These are large boulders of solidified lava weighed up to 20 ton that were blasted out of the volcano crater many hundreds of centuries ago.  We also found congealed lave “flows” representing solidified lava that had flowed down the mountainside.

As we ascend up and around the mountain in search of the pathway that will lead us up and over the lip of the crater and down into the dormant caldron, we witness canyons filled with unusual cactus-like trees and exotic succulent plants that form green cones with purple highlights.  In our search for analogies, we move from the Mojave Desert to the Grand Canyon to the surface of the moon and back again.  All the while, we keep the snow-capped peak of the mountain in our view.  Tomorrow we end our counterclockwise approach and begin the ascent in earnest.

As we’ve journeyed part way around the mountain in preparation for our ascent, we left part of ourselves along the way and we’ve gained and assimilated parts of our new selves.

Two of our cancer survivors have had to leave the mountain to return to Moshi to wait for the rest of us to return in 4 days.  Dave, a 73-year old prostate cancer survivor, became so dehydrated and unsteady due to severe diarrhea that her could not continue.  Nina, a 47-year old salivary gland cancer survivor from Philadelphia reached the limit of her physical stamina and returned to Moshi with Dave.  Dee Wittmack, mother of Above & Beyond Cancer’s executive director, Charlie Wittmack, and mom to all of us, agreed to accompany them to Moshi to help “mother” them back to health and await our return.

The departure of Dave and Nina was difficult for all of us, but we knew fro the outset that it was unlikely that everyone would reach the summit.  If this were an easy endeavor we wouldn’t be doing it.  The 17 cancer survivors and 20 caregivers that continue on do so with the sober realization that there is a lot of ground remaining between the summit and us.  We all have our eye on the prize, but we all know that reaching the summit is optional, returning home, safe and sound, is mandatory.  This journey has never been about the destination.  Dave and Nina have not “failed.”  Their journey has been rich and memorable.  They continue to inspire each of us as we continue our journey up the mountain.

“The mountain allows itself to be climbed.”  It really is true.  There are lots of slogans thrown around about “conquering the mountain,” “beating the mountain,” “attacking the mountain,” etc., but they are all incorrect.   The mountain is not our enemy.  It is our friend, our partner, and our collaborator in a journey toward personal growth.  The mountain allows us to ascend it.  Sometimes the weather is bad, the winds are fierce, the snow is impassible and we realize that she is not in the mood for our advances.  When everything is right, she sheds her armor and invites us to the top.

As we accept her invitation, we also accept the invitation to come together as a team and be transformed.  Today I witnessed some amazing displays of grace, grit, determination and teamwork as we ascended from 12,000 feet to 15,500 feet on our way up to the 19,340 feet summit.

Corey, a 32-year old lymphoma survivor is deathly afraid of heights.  Early on today we had to scramble up a steep face of a canyon wall that was quite intimidating even for someone who isn’t afraid of heights.  With assistance from his team, he was able to make it.  I don’t think he’s ready to begin a high-wire act in the circus just yet, but he’s faced his fears and learned that challenges can be overcome with the support and comfort of a team.

Steve, a 69-year old prostate cancer survivor and the “owner” of two artificial knees and an artificial hip, learned that his body parts might have some mileage limitations.  It was a long day today – 10 hours of hiking up and down, mostly up.  By the time we reached our destination for the day, it was dark.  We were at our 15,500-foot camp and Steve was exhausted, but still moving.   If it hadn’t been for the assistance of his son, Jed, and his fellow survivors, Michael and Brandon, Steve probably would still be sitting on a rock back on the trail singing to himself.  He responded to gentle encouragement mixed with large doses of tough love (suck it up!).   His strength, fortitude and sheer determination were an inspiration.  I can’t imagine that there is another 69-year-old cancer-surviving, triple joint replacement person on this planet that could do what Steve has done.  He rocks!

I witnessed similar stories at least a dozen times today.  It was a tough day, but the support whether in the form of music, dancing, singing, Power Bars, or therapeutic hugs, kept everyone going.

Connie, a 63-year old breast cancer survivor and farmer’s wife ended the journey today with strength to spare.  Three days ago she didn’t have the strength to walk to the dining tent for dinner.  Today she was supporting others on the trail.  Such is the karma of life on the mountain.  We’re all eagerly anticipating Kilimanjaro’s permission for us to ascend her to the summit in two days.  Whether we all make it to the top or not, we’ve learned a lot about our untapped strengths and the value of teamwork along the way.

17 cancer survivors and 20 caregivers reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point on the African continent, late in the afternoon on January 10th.  The team had spent the previous 10 hours ascending the steep mountain face with coughs, headaches, intestinal disorders and enough courage to fill up the dormant volcanic crater that would be our home for the night.  Our expedition chose a non-traditional route up Kilimanjaro.  Most climbing groups ascend the face of Kilimanjaro in the dark of night in order to reach the summit at dawn and then, after a brief celebration at the top, descend quickly to a safer (lower) altitude.  We wanted to spend the night at the top of the mountain, camped in the crater of this extinct volcano.  This gives us the mountaintop to ourselves for 12 hours of magnificent beauty and afforded us the opportunity to conduct the world’s highest Relay for Life.

The fastest of our group reached Stella Point (19,000 feet) mid afternoon on the 10th and then descended a few hundred feet down into the large base of the crater to prepare the campsite and the Relay track.  They arranged the luminaria to spell out HOPE in the snow near our tents which were located at the base of a huge wall of ice, the leading edge of the glacier that calls Mount Kilimanjaro its home.

I have travelled all over the world.  I had seen pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro in preparation for this trip. I was not prepared for the stunning beauty that presented itself to us.  The “peaks” of Mount Kilimanjaro are actually the high points on the rim of the crater.  They ringed our campsite, along with glaciers with their sheer walls of ice and deep blue skies.  The sun and blue skies quickly transformed into a cloudless night filled with the stars of the southern hemisphere.  The full moon rose over the rim of the crater and illuminated our campsite.

Our team had been awaiting this moment for weeks.  We knew that we were not here to climb a mountain for mere bragging rights, we were here to demonstrate to the world that cancer does not have to limit ones life.  It also is a journey that was intended to celebrate survivors, remember those who had died of cancer and motivate us to fight back against this disease.  And so we began our Relay for Life.  We were prepared to Celebrate, Remember and Fight Back!

As the sun set, we lit luminaria in honor of those who had died of cancer and in honor of those surviving the disease.  We paid tribute to all the family, friends and patients of ours who had shown us courage, grace, grit and determination in their fight.   We circled HOPE as the stars came out.  We then huddled in our tents on top of Africa and struggled to find warm and sleep at 19,000 feet.

The African sky began to brighten at 6:30 am.  The sun finally showed its face above the rim of the crater at 7 am.  The sun brought light and warmth and courage to all of us.  We opened our backpacks and 800 prayer flags poured out onto the crater floor.  We had brought them with us from the U.S.  Each one was decorated with photographs, drawings, and phrases commemorating the lives of individuals who had died of cancer or survivors who weren’t able to make the journey but wanted to be with us in spirit.  We all joined in and strung the prayer flags onto three strands of rope.  We carried one end of each strand to the top of the 150-foot high glacier wall of vertical ice that stood adjacent to our campsite.  The other end of the strands stretched out over the HOPE luminaria forming 2 arcs of multicolored flags.  I spotted the face of my mom on one of the flags as it danced in the African breeze.  She died of lung cancer when I was in medical school.  I saw the faces of Chris, Marjean, Jill, Suzanne, and countless other patients of mine who had inspired me over the course of my career.  I also saw the names and faces of patients of mine who were still fighting the fight.  Every one of the 37 team members gazed knowingly at the flags.  We all gained inspiration and motivation from the lives they represented.

Seventeen cancer survivors circled our track around the word HOPE.  They had survived cancer.  They had also survived a grueling climb to the top of Africa’s highest mountain and had inspired those of us who were fortunate to accompany them.  The next lap was for the caregivers.  We all joyously joined the survivor on that lap.  Not just the 20 of us who had come from the U.S., but also our African porters and guides who had been caregivers to all of us during the preceding week.  We then paid tribute to those who were no longer with us.  The faces of family members, patients and friends looked down on us from the prayer flags that fluttered in the wind above our heads.  We silently circled our track and reflected on how our lives had been enriched by the intersection of theirs with ours.  Finally, we vowed to Fight Back.  Those who have died will not have died in vain. They and the cancer survivors who have climbed this mountain will motivate and inspire us to do everything we can to reduce the burden of cancer and create a world with more birthdays.

As we completed the final lap of our Relay, we came together in a huddle beside HOPE.  In the midst of our huddle were 17 cancer survivors and 20 caregivers.  The cancer survivors included men and women ages 29 to 71.  They were here, not in spite of their cancer, but because of their cancer.   They were here because of the courage and confidence they gained during their cancer journey that inspired them to take on this challenge.   They showed us once again what they are made of.  Father Frank, a Catholic priest and cancer survivor, said a spontaneous prayer of thanksgiving, remembrance and celebration from the midst of that huddle.  Then, the song, “Amazing Grace” suddenly sprang forth from the huddle and filled the African sky with music fit for a cathedral.  None of us wanted the moment to end.  We embraced with the love of companionship and camaraderie and respect that is hard to describe.

We took down the flags, packed up the luminaria, broke down our campsite and headed back up the rim of the volcano.  We ascended to the highest of the 3 peaks that form the rim of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Uhuru is at 19,342 feet.  We arrived at noon.  We had the summit to ourselves.  The skies were clear and we could see forever.  We were sure, from where we stood, that we could see the future where there is a place with more birthdays.

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