The CancerClimber Association’s Summer Retreat for Cancer Survivors

cancer survivor retreat
Sean Swarner and J.Michael Shipman at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo courtesy of J.Michael Shipman



It’s 11 p.m. on Summit Day, which means we’re continuing our summit up Uhuru Peak. At 5,895 meters (roughly 19,341 feet), it’s the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro — and on the continent of Africa. The nights have been cold, but we know we’ll warm up quickly after our eight-hour trek to the top. The faster climbers will get to see the sunrise.

I can almost taste the machalari (traditional Chagga tribe meal) and banana beer that await us at Mweka Hut after our decent — a well-earned reward for a hard day’s work. But first, I’m focused on leading a group of 15 people to the mountain’s peak, including cancer survivor J. Michael Shipman, who had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and finished chemotherapy treatment just the year before.

That was my 15th time summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, as part of the CancerClimber Association’s retreat for cancer survivors. A not-for-profit organization my brother Seth and I started in 2001, the CCA gives cancer survivors the opportunity to travel to Africa and summit Kilimanjaro — free of charge. It’s an opportunity for survivors to tackle their own personal “Everest,” just as they’ve had to do throughout their battle with cancer.

In 2020, more than 1.9 million people will be diagnosed with cancer. That’s in addition to the 23.2 million adults who have already been diagnosed. No one wants to hear the words “you have cancer.” It can feel like a death sentence, stirring up feelings of uncertainty, anger, and fear. I know those feelings well — I’ve been there a couple of times.

As a two-time terminal cancer survivor, I’ve dedicated my life to beating the odds. And I want to show other cancer survivors that they can, too. Their diagnosis may have changed the course of their lives, but it doesn’t determine who they are or what they can achieve. Only they can decide that — and it starts in Tanzania, East Africa, at ground zero of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.

One cancer survivor each year is selected as the recipient of “The Adventure Support Grant,” which pays for the cost of the trip. That money is fundraised by the previous year’s recipient, as a way to “pay it forward.” Last year’s recipient, 23-year-old J. Michael, raised nearly $3,000 to help fund the trip for this year’s recipient.

Prior to being selected as a grant recipient, J. Michael reached out to me and said that — after he beat cancer — he wanted to go on a trip to celebrate.

I said we should go ahead and plan it — together.

In June 2018, we climbed Kilimanjaro side-by-side. J. Michael describes it as one of the toughest things he’s done, but also one of the most rewarding.

“Summiting Kilimanjaro was a very emotional experience for me,” J. Michael said, reflecting on his trip. “The past year, I had been through so much with being diagnosed with cancer, having surgery, going through chemo, going for monthly check-ups, and then to be able to travel to Tanzania — for free — and climb the world’s tallest freestanding mountain while representing cancer patients meant the absolute world to me.”

He recalls the immense feeling of pride he felt when he reached the top, carrying a flag with the names of his family members and friends, who had donated to make the support grant possible.

“People were so excited to see their names on the flag of HOPE on the summit,” J. Michael said. “While all I did was climb a mountain, it was much more than that. It showed everyone that cancer will not define you and you can still go on to do great things post cancer.”

J. Michael also had some advice to share with the next grant recipient: “Bring sandals, slides or crocs for the camp,” J. Michael advised. “Trust me, this will make your life so much easier.”

We’re currently raising money to help fund this trip for future survivors. Your donation of $10, $20, $100, or any amount will help grant recipients conquer their own personal challenges — and show patients everywhere that life has bigger plans for them than cancer.

To contribute toward the CCA’s retreat for cancer survivors, please visit our donation page.