Cancer patients tackle Mount Kilimanjaro one step at a time, with gusto

October 1, 2017

Photos by DYLAN HUEY

How is battling cancer like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro?

Cancer patients on Mount Kilimanjaro
Against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro's snow-laced peak, cancer survivors and others in the Above + Beyond Cancer's January trekking expedition warm up with yoga stretches before setting out on the fourth day of their 6-day hike to the summit.

Dr. Richard Deming, a radiation oncologist who leads cancer patients on expeditions like one to the summit of the legendary mountain, says both journeys are best considered one step at a time.

Deming is medical director of the Mercy Cancer Center, part of Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines in Iowa. In 2011, he began Above + Beyond Cancer, a charity whose mission is "to elevate the lives of those touched by cancer, to create a healthier world."

Leading cancer patients to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Deming and company ascend to 19,342 feet above sea level. Deming's approach to care rises above the ordinary too.

"I don't consider myself a tumor treater," he says. "I'm somebody who takes care of patients and families who have cancer. That's a very different perspective in treating the cancer.

Dr. Deming leading a meditation
Dr. Richard Deming leads a morning meditation at the camp site.

"Yes, we want to do all we can to get rid of the cancer, but we also want to make sure that we envelop patients and families with all of the support necessary to have the best possible likelihood that someone will come through this cancer journey with their life enriched, different and better than it was before."

Inner journey
The 39 patients who made it to the top of Kilimanjaro in January 2017 prepared hard for the trip, working on not just physical endurance but nutrition, meditation, and broader questions such as meaning and purpose. Such a spiritual outlook, Deming says, turns journeys into pilgrimages that can truly change lives. Cancer, he adds, can be a great teacher.

"It makes you realize you're mortal, and that recognition can really be a wake-up call to individuals to grasp a second opportunity to live life."

For Jake DeHaai, who was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 10 and is now 23, in remission and studying international affairs, Deming's one-step-at-a-time philosophy made a daunting trip doable. He recalled the moment when he first glimpsed the mountain.

Jake DeHaai

"On the bus heading toward where we were staying the night before we started our climb," he says, "it was the only thing you could see on the skyline. Initially you see it and say, 'There's no way I could climb that.'

"But each day is a new day. You can't look at the mountain as a whole."

What falls away
Deming graduated from medical school in the 1980s, a time when training doctors to deal with cancer and cancer patients was ""all about learning about diseases and treatment of diseases," he says. "There wasn't emphasis on wellness, or even an emphasis on healing.

"As I practiced oncology, it became clear to me from the very first encounter with a patient who had just been told he had cancer, this isn't a matter of treating a disease. This is caring for individuals who have been told their life may be shortened. It dealt with the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual dimensions of life."

Adventures that wake up the body and spirit like the one to the Kilimanjaro summit help patients focus on the wonders of life and the path to optimal living, Deming says. He has led other trips, including to Mount Everest base camp in Nepal and to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Tents in front of mountains
Tents cast a warm glow as trekkers settle in for the first night of camping in sight of Kilimanjaro.

"When you're on the mountain," he says, "it doesn't matter how many cars you have in your garage or how many pairs of shoes you have in your closet. You concentrate on what's really real."

Deming believes there is no joy without suffering, and his goal is to help patients power through their illness to see what the future can bring. "It's part of the yin and yang of life," he says of cancer diagnosis. "Bad things happen to good people. We can go up to the bedroom and pull the covers over our head and wait to die. Or we can embrace each day and know that we're mortal. The fact that we're dealing with a disease that may shorten our lives should be a kick in the pants.

"It's like a deadline. Lots of people don't get things done unless they have a deadline." In the best of situations, Deming says, a cancer diagnosis can "get you out of your slumber and give you a reason to start doing the things you want to do."

Hugging one's way to the top
Climbing Kilimanjaro isn't necessarily something that the climbers on Deming's January trip had always wanted to do. But it's an experience they will not soon forget.

Diane Cummings
Diane Cummings

Diane Cummings has known Deming professionally for 35 years, but their relationship changed when she was diagnosed in 2014 with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She approached the trek mindfully, pacing herself to savor every moment and appreciate "the sheer beauty of the mountain."

Reaching the summit, she says, felt like a triumph. "It was very liberating for me to say, 'Screw you, cancer — I did it in spite of you.'"

Matt Willenborg

Matt Willenborg, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2016, also had testicular cancer in 2010. After his second diagnosis, he recalled hearing Deming speak about an earlier mountain expedition, and he reached out to him for a second opinion. That led him to sign up for the Kilimanjaro trip; he lost more than 20 pounds training for the climb.

He says he particularly appreciated one nontraditional, non-medicinal approach to health that Deming encourages — hugs. Willenborg says the weightless, constantly renewable resource fueled everyone's endurance.

Sonja Gonzalez

"It's amazing how some people have a stigma about giving an adult male or female a hug. The bottom line is that adults need them too, just like kiddos."

Sonja Gonzalez, a business owner who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2008, called the trip a truly life-changing experience.

"I am the perfect example that you can do anything if you put your mind to it," she says. "You just have to want it, and do one step at a time. It's just amazing. I walked up that mountain as one person and I came down as another."





Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.