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Cancer survivor Sean Swarner's emotional journey to Everest and beyond

The first cancer survivor ever to summit Mt. Everest tells Rheana Murray what inspired him to become a triathlete and motivational speaker.
/ Source: TODAY

Sean Swarner is a two-time cancer survivor and the first cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest. The athlete and motivational speaker, who has only one lung, lives in Colorado and has also completed the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii and climbed the "Seven Summits." On Wednesday, Feb. 3, he'll participate in the Empire State Building Run-Up presented by Marmot. Here, the man behind those accomplishments shares his story with TODAY contributor Rheana Murray.

Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor and motivational speaker, on one of his many adventures.
Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor and motivational speaker, on one of his many adventures.Courtesy of Sean Swarner

I was diagnosed with cancer at such a young age, I didn't really understand what was happening. My parents would just say, "Sean is sick. He has Hodgkin's disease." Back then, it was the "C word" — cancer was associated with death. Looking back, the first time around was actually harder on my parents. I was going through stuff I didn't fully understand at 13 years old. I just knew I was losing my hair and I was 60 pounds overweight from the drugs. I knew I was different from my friends.

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I was in remission for 20 months and going in for a checkup when we learned something was wrong. My parents didn't want to beat around the bush. I remember them blatantly asking, "Is it cancer again?" The doctor said yes, and I went to my bed and buried my face in the pillow and bawled my eyes out. I lost it. I was 16 years old. Everyone thought we were in the clear. They were two completely unrelated cancers. In fact, so rare and unrelated that I'm the only person I know of who's had both Hodgkin's disease and Askin's sarcoma. The prognosis of surviving both was the equivalent of winning the lottery four times in a row with the same numbers.

Sean Swarner at age 13, when he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time.
Sean Swarner at age 13, when he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time.Courtesy of Sean Swarner

I was in the hospital one day when I saw the Ironman on the TV, and I thought to myself that if I survived, my goal would be to do that. But I started with Everest — I literally wanted the highest platform in the world to scream hope. The human body can live for roughly 30 days without food, 3 days without water, but no human alive can live for 30 seconds without hope.

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When I get to the top, I think of all the people who have pushed me up there, all the people fighting cancer, all the people giving me hope and inspiration. That's why I'm doing it.

Sean Swarner in Antarctica last year.
Sean Swarner in Antarctica last year.Courtesy of Sean Swarner

I was at a conference once and a woman came up to talk to me. I could tell she had been crying — her eyes were bloodshot and her mascara was running. She just latched on to me. She started telling me her story. In the previous six months, her son had passed away from cancer, her husband had passed away from cancer, and she had been diagnosed with cancer for the third time. She told me she had no plan for going home. She had her suicide note written in her hotel room. She had forced herself to go to my presentation and after listening, she told me I saved her life.

I didn't know what to say or do. It was like Mike Tyson had punched me in the chest. I went back to my own hotel room and I lost it. I just started crying.

Sean Swarner giving a speech several years ago.
Sean Swarner giving a speech several years ago.Courtesy of Sean Swarner

I'd be lying if I said I was happy every day, that I was positive all the time. Last year, I was trekking across Antarctica to the South Pole. I joke that it was one of the most boring expeditions because you would wake up and say, "Oh, which way should we go today?" But it's always south. You spend a lot of time with yourself when you're doing stuff like this. I can be trekking along, thinking, "This is awesome, this is the most beautiful place on Earth," and then a millisecond later it changes to, "What the hell am I doing? It's so cold. I could lose my fingers! I could lose my toes!"

You have to teach yourself to focus on the end result before you begin. So you can push past those little thoughts and frustrations that get in your mind, because in your mind, you're already there.