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A year after a brain tumor, man climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro to encourage others

When Jake Dirks was battling brain cancer he simply focused on surviving. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro helped him push himself in other ways.
/ Source: TODAY

A year after beating brain cancer, a man spent a week pushing the limits of his body in ways the cancer didn’t: He climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.

“When you’re hiking eight hours a day, you have a lot of time to think about life,” Jake Dirks told TODAY. “I was blessed to be able to survive cancer and blessed with this trip.”

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In 2014, Dirks, 29, subbed as a goalie in his then fiancé’s, Tiernay's, soccer match. As he dove for a ball, someone kneed him in the head. He felt odd, but he finished the game. He didn’t think he had a concussion.

Cancer survivor climbs Kilimanjaro
Only a year into remission for Stage 3 cancer, Jake Dirks climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. He says that when he was undergoing treatment, he never imaged he would be able to do something as demanding as climbing a mountain.Courtesy of Jake Dirks

Later in the evening as he brushed his teeth, he collapsed. He had suffered a grand mal seizure and doctors discovered something surprising — a large mass was nestled in the right frontal lobe of his brain.

“If I wouldn’t have played goalie that day it would have gotten worse,” he said.

Doctors recommended surgery to remove the mass. But before that happened, he and Tiernay stopped by Denver City Hall to get married. They didn't want to wait any longer.

Dirks' tumor, an astroblastoma, disguises itself as brain tissue, making it difficult for doctors to tell the difference between the healthy and cancerous tissue. In less than a week, doctors performed two surgeries to remove as much cancer as possible.

“They took out most of my right frontal lobe,” he said.

Cancer survivor climbs Kilimanjaro
To prepare for his climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, Jake Dirks hiked the mountains in Colorado with wife, Tiernay and daughter, Della.Courtesy of Jake Dirks

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Yet, some cancer still remained in Dirks' brain and the Denver resident moved to Houston for radiation treatment for two months. When he returned home, he started chemotherapy. Doctors told him that treatment might make it difficult for him to father children. But a month into chemotherapy, he was thrilled when Tiernay learned she was pregnant.

But that wasn't the only good news — after a year of chemo, Dirks was cancer-free.

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One day at work Dirks bumped into Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor, and the first cancer survivor to climb Mt. Everest. Swarner founded the Cancer Climber Association and every year he takes a cancer survivor to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to inspire them to make the most of their post-cancer lives.

“After going through cancer you have a new lease on life. Why after doing this would you sit at home and be at home, being safe?” he said.

Swarner encouraged Dirks to apply for the trip even though he had only been in remission a short time. Most climbers were not recent survivors, but Swarner felt that Dirks possessed the right attitude to make it to the top.

“What he went through was amazing and he gave me hope and inspiration,” Swarner said.

Cancer survivor climbs Kilimanjaro
Doctors told Jake Dirks cancer treatments might make it difficult for him to father children. He and his wife felt thrilled when they learned she was pregnant.Courtesy of Jake Dirks

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To prepare, Dirks worked out at the gym for an hour a day. In the evenings he hiked, often with Tiernay and their daughter, Della, in tow. On the weekends, they tackled Colorado’s fourteeners, mountains that were 14,000-feet or higher. If he could manage those, he hoped he could handle Kilimanjaro’s 19,431-foot climb.

“I trained pretty strenuously and had tough days of lifting and hiking,” he said.

Dirks joined Swarner and two others for the five day climb up the mountain in July. Each day he faced a harder climb, but the last day felt the most grueling. They left camp at 11 p.m. to arrive at the summit at sunrise. When he struggled and wondered what he was doing, one of the other climbers reminded him of the days stuck in a hospital bed attached to tubes when even walking seemed like an insurmountable challenge.

“Never in my mind did I think I would climb Mount Kilimanjaro," Dirks said. "It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had."

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He hopes his adventure encourages others to realize it's possible to overcome illness and do what once seemed impossible.

“If you put your mind to something you can do it. You can beat cancer; you can make it to the top of Kilimanjaro. You have to have hope you can do it.”