05/07/08 10:00 AM ET
On top of the world
After conquering cancer, Swarner has seen it all
By Justice B. Hill / MLB.com
As he stood there in 2002, Swarner wanted to scream to the billions of people below. He wanted to tell them all that he, back then a 27-year-old man who twice survived cancer, had made it. He had ascended the world's tallest mountain.
"I was so far out of breath pretty much that I couldn't scream," he said. "But I cried like a baby. I know that much."
You don't expect to hear a man with Swarner's iron will talk about crying. He had no reason to cry, really. He had reason to celebrate -- to celebrate yet another obstacle that he'd dispatched.
Everest became just another accomplishment he could use to motivate other people who also face life-threatening illnesses.
Mount Everest, Kilimanjaro, Mount McKinley, he's now scaled them all -- and more. Swarner has made climbing to the top of the world his passion, a passion he enjoys describing to people who share his adventuresome spirit.
He brought that spirit to Progressive Field recently. Swarner was there, standing on the pitcher's mound on a chilly, breezy night, and readying himself to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for his favorite baseball team.
Swarner, who grew up in Willard, Ohio, was again doing something few men get to do. No, it was absolutely nothing like climbing Everest, the odds of which are long even for people who haven't had their lungs ravaged by cancer. Yet not everyone gets to do what Swarner did at the ballpark, either.
But all Sean Swarner has done was what few have been able to do. In doing so, he keeps beating the odds, just as he did in beating cancer.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes want to give up," he said.
He didn't, though.
More than anything else, Swarner and his fight against cancer personify perseverance. Swarner's life is a tale of triumph -- a tale of victory in the face of almost certain defeat.
"I wanted to show people that there's truly no mountain too high to climb," he said. "I wanted to shout from the rooftop of the world that there is hope."
In way of comparison, he's become to mountain climbing what Lance Armstrong has become to cycling, which should tell people as much as they need to know about Swarner.
Inside that overly vague capsule of Swarner's life is another story, a story that doesn't often end happily. It certainly isn't a story that people can expect will take a man to Everest.
For before looking down from Everest, Swarner had to look first at his own mortality. He was 13 when doctors told him he had Hodgkin's disease. Their prognosis was grim: They didn't expect him to live more than three months.
But treatment after treatment put his cancer into remission, and Swarner, now 33, proved his doctors wrong.
Had he planned to resume a normal teenager's life, Swarner would have found doing so impossible. For two years later, doctors diagnosed him with Askin's Sarcoma, another potentially fatal form of cancer.
This time, his doctors gave him two weeks to live.
"They actually administered last rites," he said.
Just like his first cancer, Swarner beat sarcoma, too. He credited medicine, determination, family and God for playing a part in it all.
A dozen years and an unfinished doctorate later, and with only partial use of his lungs, Swarner made the arduous, 45-day trek to the summit of Everest. He stood there with memories of his teenage years fresh in his mind.
He was, however, too short of breath to scream. He soaked in the sights instead.
With two Sherpas at his side in the rarefied air of Everest, Swarner could see the curvature of the Earth. He could also see triumph -- his personal victory achieved against an opponent as tough as any person can ever face.
"I describe it to people as, 'If you could take every emotion you ever had and wrap it up into one little, tiny package and explode all at once, that's what it felt like,' " said Swarmer, the founder of Cancer Climber Association in Boulder, Colo. "It was so incredible that words can't do it justice."
Nowadays, he looks at what he's done in climbing mountains like Mount Everest as an achievement he proudly shares with others who have personal struggles.
He tells people he doesn't know why he's beaten odds when others couldn't. He said he's grateful for being blessed, which is the reason he's turned his survival from cancer into a mission for other people -- young and old -- to follow.
"I live my life by the five L's -- live, love, laugh, learn and lead by example," he said. "I think I'm working on the last part right now."
His work takes him around the world. It takes him to high schools, cancer clinics and to colleges. It also takes him to the top of mountains.
"There's an understanding that people who have been on the top of Everest have, and it's an appreciation for life -- a new perspective," Swarner said. "But the thing is if you're looking for something and if you're trying to find something, you're not going to find it on the top of mountains.
"You have to look within yourself."
And Sean Swarner did.
Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.