An interview with Sean Swarmer
By Anthony T. Eaton
In the United States, 6,000 to 7,000 new cases of Hodgkin Lymphoma are diagnosed each year and about 5.4 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the US.
I had the privilege to talk to Sean in May of this year about his experience, books, and thoughts on leadership. Sean is facing another fight with cancer so I am re-posting his interview.
Watch this heartfelt message by Sean about his recent diagnosis.
At age 13, Sean Swarner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and went through months of intensive treatment and beats it only to be diagnosed two years later with Askin’s sarcoma. With a prognosis of fourteen days to live, and being in a medically-induced coma for a year, Sean is the only known person to have both types of Cancer and yet beats the odds.
A decade later, with only one functioning lung, Sean becomes the first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest. But Everest was just the beginning, Sean also completed the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, HI, and on April 11, 2017, and completed a trek to the North Pole
I had the privilege to talk to Sean about his experience, books, and thoughts on leadership.
“Anything is possible, and there’s always good in every bad situation,” Swarner said. “Cancer is probably one of, if not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but in the same breath, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Life’s all about perspective.”
As we do this interview, we are in the midst of a pandemic not seen in modern times. What are your thoughts, how has this pandemic affected you personally?
My initial thoughts go to all the people affected directly by this virus. I’ve had friends on the “front line” as doctors and nurses who have told me they feel like they’re going to war without any armor or ammo. I’ve also had friends who have had it and recovered, thankfully. I’m staying away from everyone except my wife because there’s no telling what could happen to a guy with one lung. It’s affected me personally because I’m a professional keynote speaker, and all of the conferences where I was booked to speak have canceled until the end of September. As of right now, I’m building an online program for cancer survivors as well as professionals and anyone else who wants to join. Here’s a great video explaining how we’re actually in control, not the virus:
Learn how you can control fear and anxiety from two-time terminal cancer survivor Sean Swarner. Learn three solid steps that will help you every day. If you want to add more positivity to your life, go to www.StepUpAfterCancer.com to sign up for a free StepUP Sunday weekly message giving you everything you need to keep motivated, overcome fear and have a successful week!
That is a great video, thanks for sharing. You were athletic before your cancer diagnosis and continued to have that passion and drive, where did the idea to tie your athletic ability and sense of adventure to your cancer experience come from?
It came from when I was working toward my doctorate in psychology, and I was being pulled away from my personal core values. Long story short, I was working three jobs while taking classes and had an incident that changed my life. I realized I had drifted a long way from my roots in Willard, Ohio. I was being pulled in the wrong direction, and after re-evaluating my values, thinking about my cancer history, and deciding I needed something else, I wanted to give back and help. I kept coming up with bigger and bigger platforms to share my story of hope, and eventually landed on the highest one in the world… Everest.
Clearly, you found your calling and could recognize it. Your first book is KEEP CLIMBING: HOW I BEAT CANCER AND REACHED THE TOP OF THE WORLD, what was the catalyst for writing it?
Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World was an idea I had when I returned safely from climbing the highest mountain on earth. I reflected on what the trip and adventure meant to me and wanted to put it out there for everyone touched by Cancer. While I was climbing Everest, I had a flag donned with names of people touched by the disease. They were my motivation, my inspiration. This book is dedicated to them… thanking them for supporting me and giving me hope.
I don’t think I have met anyone that has not been touched by Cancer in some way, that is very noble of you to do. You are putting out a series of books called 7 SUMMITS TO SUCCESS, what do the seven summits represent?
The idea came from the actual mountains and my expeditions… 7 continents, 7 highest summits. During my years of professional keynote speaking, I’ve been developing countless stories that have embedded lessons people can take and use in their daily lives. There was one presentation in particular where I was speaking in front of a room full of CEOs, Presidents, etc, and I was talking about climbing up to the summit of Mt. Everest. I was at 29,000 feet (nearly the altitude where jumbo jets level off and fly) trying to breathe with one lung and relating it back to “normal” life. Then it struck me… no one in the room has any idea what I’m talking about because they never experienced that before. People love the story, they love the adventure, but the takeaways are what matter. People will forget what you tell them, but they’ll never forget how you make them feel.
I decided that not only could I relate my adventures to everyday life by reflecting back to my cancers, my college experience, and other lower altitude adventures, but I could also make people feel incredibly empowered. The books are an extension of my presentation with a LOT more detail. There was a lesson I learned on every mountain, and those lessons are embedded within the book. Through micro-changes and challenges, people can accomplish anything. This is a guide on how to do that.
I love that and believe that there is so much to learn from the experience of others. That connection and ability to relate really can make a difference. Much of what you do requires working with a team, and you often put your life in the hands of that team, how do you choose those who help you achieve your goals?
Easy. We’re all focused on one thing – enjoying the moment. No one has a crystal ball to see into the future and the present moment is all we have. Obviously, it helps to prepare for the future, but truly enjoying what we have is key. Anyone who’s negative need not apply, because attitude is contagious, and if you have an infection, I’d rather it be a positive one than a negative one. I surround myself with people who are focused on all the things we CAN do, and how we can get it done, as opposed to all the obstacles that could potentially get in our way.
Attitude makes all the difference. What has been the most challenging adventure for you; why?
Honestly, getting my story out to the world. People resonate with it, however, I was speaking with a Hollywood producer once who said it had everything for a feature film. The drama, the romance, the excitement, adventure… everything. To which I replied, “I’m sorry I didn’t die to make it more exciting.” He laughed but continued telling me that if I would have died, this would have been a better story. So I think the hardest adventure is fighting against the negativity of the world.
Wow, that is awful, but honestly, I am not surprised. It can be a challenge; I think our society focuses on the negative more than the positive. All you have to do is watch the news, and you see that. Has there been anyone that you looked up to as a leader or a mentor?
Of course. I couldn’t have done what I have without proper guidance. Just like Cancer… it’s not an individual disease. My entire family went through it. My brother, my mom, my dad. We were all pulled through a horrible experience. Imagine if you had a 16 year old son and you were told he had an expiration date of 14 days? How would you feel? I have a couple of people I look up to and bounce ideas off of. They’re tremendously successful in all areas of life, and I’m fortunate to have their guidance.
You are so right when you say it is not an individual disease, and I have been in that position when a doctor tells you someone you love may only have days or a week to live.
Where do your motivation and inspiration come from?
That’s easy… anyone going through a difficult time. Every single person who’s ever been touched by Cancer. Everywhere I go (vacation, presentations, climbing, adventures, etc) I do my best to visit local hospitals and hear the stories of the patients and share mine with them. I think we inspire each other.
What advice or words of encouragement do you give to others who are facing a battle with Cancer?
Make every day count, never give up hope, always reach for the summit. Bad days are temporary and embrace the good days. Also, depending on their personal situation, lots of humor. Laughing helps a lot.
Sean Swarner is the first cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest and conquers the highest peaks on each continent. Two years ago, he began his quest to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, which includes the North and South poles.
I believe we are all leaders because we influence others in one way or another having an impact on them whether we realize it or not. I would certainly say you are a leader, but what are your thoughts on that?
I honestly think one person can make a difference in the world. It’s like the pebble in the lake analogy… toss a pebble in there and the ripples can spread across the entire lake. Our lives are so connected; we’ll never know the full extent of those we impact.
That is a great analogy, and I believe that and have always said that you must make a conscious decision about what kind of leader you want to be. Looking back on your journey and knowing what you know now, what is one piece of advice you would have given yourself along the way?
Stay true to your personal core values. Those are the guiding compass to your true north. I’ve actually developed a Core Values Assessment if anyone’s interested: firstname.lastname@example.org email me.
I know I am interested! No leader is perfect, but what do you think is the biggest mistake any leader can make?
The first thing that comes to mind is, thinking he/she knows everything/more than those being led. We all have the capacity to become better, and through feedback from others, we can focus on self-improvement. We’ll never know everything, and we can always become better today than we were yesterday.
What is your next adventure?
Hopefully, I can get the corporate support and funding for a campaign to run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. it’s all planned out; we are going to film it, we just need that support. Maybe after the virus is gone, this would be a tremendous way to unite the world?
I like to end my interviews with a quote, do you have a favorite?
I have a lot of favorites, actually. One that I share in my keynote talks: The human body can live roughly 30 days without food. The human condition can sustain itself for about 3 days without water. But no human can survive for more than 30 seconds without hope.
That is a great quote! Thank you so much for doing this interview with me.
Sean has a private online program available helping people transform a traumatic experience into an empowering life event. To get more info, email Sean at email@example.com
Sean graduated from Willard High School in Willard, Ohio, in 1993, and Westminster College in 1997. Amazon recently posted a film about his recent expedition to the north pole. He established his own foundation (The Cancer Climber Association), which promotes cancer awareness and entirely funds a survivor’s trip to Africa.
Sean was voted one of the top 8 most inspirational people in history and was the recipient of the Don’t Ever Give Up Award presented by the Jimmy V Foundation and ESPN and was featured on ESPN in a 10-minute segment on his life story and struggle.
To learn more about Sean, visit:
Please offer your support to Sean by sharing this with your network. Thank you Anthony.