Sean Swarner is one of the few people to do the impossible. Defying the odds, he fought cancer twice and survived. Now, Sean works to inspire and motivate others to succeed, and we’re here to learn how he did it. Dr. Patty Ann Tublin interviews Sean to learn the secrets of beating the Big C and climbing the highest mountain in the world. Sean talks about motivation, mindset, and the drive to move forward. Inspire yourself and move past negativity with these lessons from Sean.
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Defying The Odds: A Story Of Mindset, Survival, And Success With Sean Swarner
I am truly excited about our amazing guest. I’m going to tell you a little bit about him. Before I do, since I know you’re going to love this episode and you’re going to love this show, make sure you like, comment, share and subscribe to this show now because once we get started with this interview, Sean is going to blow you away. You’re going to get so immersed in the information that you are going to forget. Having said that, I’m going to tell you a little bit about our guest, Sean Swarner. He is one of these outdoors buff people. He’s coming to us from Colorado. He told me when we were chatting before we got on that he’s headed to Africa.
I didn’t want him to tell me anything else because I want you to hear that story because everything with Sean is a story. He’s what they call an Explorer Grand Slam. He’s summited all the 7th summit mountains of the world like Mount Everest, South Africa, South America and Australia. He’ll tell you all about it and he finished the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
You might be thinking, “Big deal. I know plenty of people that are superhuman,” but what you don’t know about Sean that makes him extra superhuman is that he is also a cancer survivor. He is the first cancer survivor who has accomplished everything I said and so much more. Rather than me telling you about Sean, let me welcome Sean to our interview. I am beyond excited to have you as a guest, Sean, welcome.
This is awesome but I’m not going to continue to say anything else until people do like and subscribe.
There’s a reason why this man has superpowers. Thank you so much. Sean, we teased them a little bit so let’s start with you’re headed to Africa. Are you going to bear wrestle a leopard? What are you doing?
For the past twenty trips to Africa, I have led a group up Kilimanjaro as a fundraiser for a cancer charity. This will be my 22nd trip up Kilimanjaro.
How many years?
I would say probably 18 t0 19 years. There were a couple of years I did two back-to-back trips up Kili, but this trip is unique. Wherein we’re turning it into what I call an inspidition. Let me explain that a little bit. Everybody who shows up for the mountain thinks that they’re going to conquer the mountain. When in all honesty, if it’s you versus Mother Nature, she’s going to kick your ass every single time. I don’t care who you are. You don’t conquer the mountain. You conquer yourself.
This is an inspidition. Not an expedition. It’s an inward journey with an outward adventure. My success rate on the mountain with the groups I’ve been leading, we have a 99% success rate. We are double the mountains average and it’s because we help people find a deeper purpose, a deeper passion, which then turns into a deeper meaning.
I have to ask a question. Do you vet differently for who you take?
No, I do not. I’ve taken people from 13 years old to 70 years old up the mountain. Anyone can go. It turns into something deep.
You don’t conquer the mountain. You conquer yourself. This is an inspidition, not an expedition. It’s an inward journey with an outward adventure.
That is incredible. What you’re saying is intellectually, we know it cognitively but every accomplishment and every success starts on the inside. Why don’t you share with us your journey and open up all your wisdom to everybody in the audience because I’m blown away and I’ve just met you?
I appreciate that. I’ll go back to your intro and also for people who are watching, I apologize for the hat and the hair. I’m letting it grow because I’m leaving for Africa. When I come back and we do a follow-up, I will look so much better.
When are you coming back? What month?
Probably sometime in March. We’re leaving on February 1st. After the trip, I’m going to visit my wife. She’s going to Puerto Rico. She’s from Puerto Rico, born and raised down there. I’m Puerto Rican born in Brooklyn. She’s Puerto Rican born in the Caribbean. Before me, her idea of adventure was going to the beach without a bottle of rum. She now loves Colorado but I’m coming back and visiting her and her family for a while. Probably, the beginning two weeks of March is when I’m coming back home.
Tell us about your amazing journey and you’re life. Take it from wherever you want to start.
I will back up to your intro and say that I am the only person, not just the first cancer survivor, in history to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain on every continent, ski both the North and South poles and complete the Hawaii Ironman triathlon. I happened to do it after surviving two terminal cancers. A prognosis of 3 months and 14 days to live. I was read my last rites. I was in a medically induced coma for a year of my life and I only have one fully functioning lung. The only difference between me and anybody else on the planet is that I might have a warmer jacket.
Clearly, you’re being humble because we know there’s a lot more different about you. Maybe the difference is that it’s something everybody has but you access it. Tell us about that.
You hit the nail on the head. Everybody has it within them to accomplish tremendous things if we stop believing the excuses we tell ourselves and if we also have a deeper purpose. How to find that purpose is understanding what your personal core values are so you have a path to move forward. It’s understanding that it’s not about the mountain summit. It’s not about the North Pole or the South Pole. It’s not about crossing the finish line, the new car, the new house or the million dollars. It’s about what that represents to you that goes back to one of the core values that you’re supporting. If you have any goals, let’s say the new Ferrari. That new Ferrari is going to get old, rust and dusty. What’s not going to ever change are your personal core values and how you feel about something.
Before you go any further, I had a thought when you said that because so much of my work with companies of all sizes have to do with what are your core values. What is the essence of the core values that you have that people need to tap into? I look at the core values as somebody’s North Star. In my humble opinion, one of the reasons why I think we have so much consumerism in this world is because people buy something, looking for purpose, looking to look good, to feel better, to maybe show off a little bit and to show success. There’s neurochemistry behind this, where there’s an uptick of dopamine and you feel good for a while. You then come down and guess what? Now, you need another purchase or you need another thing. Address that and its relevance to all that you’ve achieved.
When you’re told you have fourteen days to live and when you’re laying in the hospital bed and the man on the cloth comes in and reads your last rites.
Are you a Catholic?
Let’s say I am Christian. When that happens, you look at life a little differently. You start questioning things. I questioned things as a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old when I had my cancers.
Your first diagnosis was at thirteen? You have this wisdom at thirteen.
I was forced to. I remember being 60 pounds overweight bald from head to toe. I was on my hands and knees sobbing while the water in the shower was filling up because my hair was clogging the drain. I remember that I had two choices. I could fight for my life or give up and die. From 13 to 18 years old, I essentially had cancer and those are the developmental years of your life. When you’re faced with your own mortality at such a young age, you look at life a little bit differently. You have a different perspective. You understand what’s important. While my friends were chasing girls and collecting baseball cards, what I developed is a value. Being popular in high school, I didn’t care about that. When I was at a young age, I didn’t understand why so many people are more concerned about what others think of them than what they think of themselves.
Can you tell us a little bit about the pre-cancer diagnosis? At thirteen, prior to your diagnosis. Did you have that wisdom then or was there a radical transformation? It’s not a trick question. I don’t know the answer.
Before I had cancer, I was always an athlete. I was a swimmer. When I was younger, I would swim the 25 feet of breaststroke, touched the wall and I would look up. Either mom or dad would always be there to pull me out of the water. They will put the towel around me. They would always ask me two questions. One, did you have fun? Two, did you do your best? Not, “Why didn’t you beat Johnny? Why didn’t you beat Jim?” At such a young age, they taught me I never had to be the best. I had to be my best.
By pushing myself a little bit further now than I did yesterday, I would become the best because I was setting the bar for myself. I wasn’t comparing myself to others. I wasn’t getting lost in what other people wanted. By doing that, it helped me focus on myself, not the outside world. I was living in my own little bubble that I wanted to get bigger and bring people in. Looking at it before the cancers, I was taught by my mom and my dad, and I was empowered by them to focus on me.
At the same time, giving back because one of my personal core values is charity. It was always to be a humble winner, always to be a good loser, but always to be the best person I could be. Not the best person that someone else wanted me to be. I don’t go after someone else’s goals. I go after what I wanted to go after.
That’s your foundation. You’re being a competitive swimmer and you’re being a normal teenage boy, whatever that means, then you get this diagnosis. You must have been like, “You must have the wrong person.”
It flipped my world upside down. It took everything I was doing and it was like the remote control on life hit pause. The world kept zipping by and my friends still kept living. They get moving forward when I was stuck in a hospital. I went through the treatments for a year and a half the first time around. The second time around, I was in a coma for a year. I don’t even remember being sixteen years old. Granted, a lot of people wish they could probably forget being sixteen but I don’t have that opportunity. If you look at it, no matter what you’re going through and no matter how traumatic the situation is, there’s always a silver lining. There’s always an opportunity to improve. There’s always a way to look at it from the perspective of, “There are no obstacles, only opportunities.”
I saw it as an opportunity to strike to myself every day and be grateful. That was one of the things that helped me along. Let’s pretend that every night, you’re going to bed. You are terrified to close your eyes because you don’t know if they’re ever going to open again. As opposed to going to bed thinking, “I didn’t do this. I should’ve done that. I forgot to do this.” Every single night I went to bed, I was grateful for the things I was able to accomplish.
Did you keep a gratitude journal or do you just have it in your brain?
Everybody has it within them to accomplish tremendous things.
At that age, it was in my brain. Now, I made my own journal. Every evening, I write down five things I’m grateful for and I finished the sentence and fill in the blanks, “From the above, I’m grateful for blank because of blank.”
You take it deeper. It’s you’re grateful and why you’re grateful for it. We know there’s the neuroscience behind that. You’re creating a new neural pathway. We also know the number one road to happiness is absolute gratitude. Who was your support system during that time? Obviously, it’s your parents. How did they support you? Did you have siblings? Did you have friends? Who gathered around you? Even though we have to face these things and face off years alone, who we surround ourselves with outside is imperative. I’ve talked to physicians that have said, and I think you’ll agree with this, that cancer has never killed a patient. They get tired of fighting.
I would agree with that. It goes back to a quote. I think it was Henry Ford who said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” With the two cancers I had, I never focused on not dying. I focused on living and developing those neural pathways of focusing on the opportunity. How many entrepreneurs get into business and think to themselves, “Don’t lose money.” No, you want to make money. Whatever your attention is focused on and wherever your energy is going is what’s going to happen. It’s what you are going to get.
That’s a place of abundance too as opposed to scarcity. I tell people all the time, “When Johnny goes up to bat, you don’t say, ‘don’t strike out.’ You say, ‘keep your eye on the ball.’” It’s the same thing.
Many people don’t understand how true that is. When you’re running a marathon or you’re running whatever it might be and you’re telling your legs, “Don’t stop,” what happens is you stop. It’s the same thing with climbing mountains. I’m climbing the highest mountains in the world with one functioning lung. People thought it was physiologically impossible. I don’t tell myself, “Don’t stop.” I tell myself, “Keep climbing.” In fact, every step I take, one step is the higher I go, the other one is the stronger I get. I have a mantra when I’m up in the mountain.
Is the mantra, “The higher I go, the stronger I get?”
It’s the little successes that build on each other.
It goes back to if you have a deeper purpose, it gives your life more meaning. When you have more meaning, you have more passion. I’ve been up to the top of Kilimanjaro. This will be my 22nd trip. We’re taking a group of CEOs to show them that they can do it as well and give them that purpose.
Do you have an Eskimo exclusive club up there so they come again like Frequent Flyer?
We should. That’s a great idea. When we do get up there, I don’t care how strong. We have a guy who is an active duty Marine. Big, tough and strong dude but he was up there in tears.
What you said and whenever I speak to entrepreneurs, I do tend to think of the Marines a lot. I’m a big pro-military person. My son is an active duty Navy now. My husband was in the Navy. They have that motto, be the best that you can be. They talk about individual responsibility but you know you are part of a team. Once a Marine, always a Marine. There’s that pride attached to it. That’s what you’re saying when you bring people up. They’re each individually responsible but the focus is on the group helping each other, I would imagine.
Yes, because whenever you’re going up and you’re suffering. You’re essentially a walking zombie at 3:00 in the morning because we’ve been going for four hours and it’s 10 below 0. I know I’m selling this well so you’re not going to go. When you’re a walking zombie and you’re exhausted because of the altitude, if somebody is feeling stronger, they can take something from your pack. That might switch the next day. I might feel exhausted so somebody is going to come up and take my pack. You support each other but it’s your responsibility to will yourself to put one foot in front of the other. No one’s going to make you or help you put one step after another. As a team, you move cohesively together and help one another make it to the top of the mountain, which is your common goal.
It’s the power in the numbers.
Everybody might have a different reason. We have a guy who found out his grandmother has been diagnosed with cancer. He’s thinking about canceling the trip. I told him this would be a great way to have a deeper purpose for the trip. Grab a picture of her. Take it to the top and take a picture with you and her at the summit and go back and share that with her.
I got goosebumps. Is he going to do it?
We’re trying. He only found out.
If you know a little bit about the grandmother, then you can use some of her languages and feed them to him. You have to know a little bit about her. Let me take you back a little bit, only in the service of moving forward. You wake up and you went to sleep. It’s a little bit like Sleeping Beauty. You went to sleep at fifteen, then you woke up at seventeen, correct?
Pretty much. At thirteen, I had my first cancer for about a year, then at fourteen, I was in remission. At fifteen, almost sixteen years old, I got hit again.
You wake up and WTF. What happened?
That’s essentially what happened. The first time, in hindsight I don’t think I’ve truly understood what I was going through at thirteen. The second time, around 16 and 17, I understood what it meant to potentially die. I understood what it meant to not have any support. Going back to your question. I had my family, I have one younger brother, the community, the doctors and the nurses. Everyone rallied around me to push me forward. I had those deep dark days, which everybody does. I’m not Superman. Everybody has a dark day. You only have to understand it’s a temporary condition, not a permanent state. I knew that was going to pass but also knowing and seeing how my friends were at this point, dating girls, going out driving and having some fun, I could potentially get sick and die with a common cold because of my compromised immune system. My life was on pause. However, I knew that there was more to it. I was so young but I developed a different perspective on life. Even going through something that traumatic, I realized that it was building me to become a stronger and more resilient person. I was working on my resiliency muscle.
It sounds like what you’re saying is even though you weren’t living the life that you thought a teenage boy should be living like driving fast cars, dating girls or whatever, you are able to have the wisdom to see that you had your life.
Don’t go after someone else’s goals. Go after what you want to go after.
I would say that’s very correct. I would also say that I don’t think anyone lives the life that they think they’re going to live anyhow.
Were you aware of that back then?
I don’t think so. I only saw it as this was my life. Like everybody, I asked myself when I got diagnosed the first and second time, “Why the F me?” That wasn’t going to change the facts. That wasn’t going to change and get rid of cancer. Asking that question even looking back at it now, there’s no way I would know, but that was the fact and that was what was going on. I had cancer. What am I going to do about it? Am I going to sit and wallow in my own pity? No, I’m going to move forward and get on with my life.
You remind me of the book by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Did you read that?
I didn’t read it but I will put it on my list.
Victor Frankl was a survivor of the concentration camps, then he went on to become a psychiatrist. He wanted to understand who survived the concentration camps. You’ll love it. It’s an easy book and short. They found out that it wasn’t the guys that were best in shape. It wasn’t the strongest, the biggest and the smartest. What he found out was there was one common denominator and that was people who survived found a meaning to their life. They had a purpose. Here’s one of the examples he gives.
There were twin girls. I can’t remember if they were twelve years old when they were released from the concentration camps or they were twelve years old when they went it. It doesn’t matter but they were twins and they’re in there together. Each of them separately was interviewed by Victor Frankl. They both said the same thing. They said, “I had to live because if I died, it would have killed my sister.” Their reason for living was not themselves. It was the other. Is anything like that true for you?
I would say, yes. I’m getting emotional only thinking about it. Thinking back to my first cancer, I think one of the reasons I continued fighting was because there was one other picture in mind of my mom and my dad living a life without their firstborn son.
As a parent, I can picture that.
I didn’t want to die. I kept surviving because I couldn’t picture how much pain my parents would go through if I die.
Do they know that?
I think my mom does.
I think you need to make sure that they know that. That is such a gift. Are you a parent, Sean?
Not that I know of.
That’s what my husband used to say. My point is that is such a gift for you to give your parents. Share that with them.
I do need to share it with them. Talking about the twins hit home because I know that was one of the reasons why I kept fighting for my parents and my family.
That’s incredible. You get out. You’re done with cancer. You beat it, then you have like five years. The medical community has all these arbitrary hoops you have to jump through before they give you permission to get on with your life. Take us from that journey.
I graduated from high school then I went and turned into Belushi from Animal House in college.
We might be dating ourselves depending upon the age. Animal House was John Belushi and the famous Toga food fight.
There was a line in there. He said something like, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” He was like, “Germans? Let them go. He’s on a roll.”
What did you do? Did you go back into the brick-and-mortar school? They didn’t have online but did you get a GED or whatever?
I graduated. I got my high school diploma then I went to Westminster College in Pennsylvania. It’s a small liberal arts school. I started with Molecular Bio thinking I was going to cure cancer and splice genes and play God.
A deeper purpose gives your life more meaning. When you have more meaning, you have more passion.
Was it until you got organic chemistry? I was only joking.
It was immunology and OChem. It’s so difficult to pass those classes if you don’t open a book so I switched.
Was that how it work?
Also, I didn’t enjoy it. I was forcing myself into something. I was trying to put a round peg in a square hole. It didn’t work.
Do you know what I think you might have been trying to do? Go with me here. It seems like you went through a positive or negative. It’s a traumatic experience. It sounds like maybe the Molecular Biology route was your first attempt at finding meaning in that. As you know, as an entrepreneur, we don’t always hit it right the first time. Maybe that’s what you were doing.
I think it was me trying to understand why it happened because I did some research. I found back in ‘93 that EBV, the Epstein-Barr Virus causes some lymphomas. Now, it’s well-known. I figured that out. I didn’t have my docs at the time. I didn’t publish any papers but I did a lot of research and found that they were potentially connected.
You had Epstein-Barr. Did you know it?
Yes. I got mononucleosis from one of my girlfriends back in high school.
That was it. That must have been it. It’s one of the long lines.
I switched to Psychology and I found that I had a deeper purpose. I wanted to compare. My senior thesis was looking at the life perspective and outcome of cancer. It means if you go into it with an optimistic point of view or if you go into it with a pessimistic point of view, who has a better quality of life on the other side? No studies have ever shown that. It’s completely obvious but no science and no numbers have shown that.
What year did you graduate?
In high school, it was supposed to be ’92 but I graduated in ’93 because of the whole mix-up. I couldn’t go to high school for a year. In ’97 is when I graduated from college.
The reason why I’m asking is because of the neuroscience that I am so into now and that we know of, The Art of Impossible, peak performance. I’m sure you’re familiar with that. I might be speaking a lot but I would imagine that was in its infancy. Now, we know the mindset you have going into something. Back then, it was foo-foo, at least for modern medicine.
This blows a lot of people’s minds. I’m still looking back at it blows my mind. In ‘88, when I was thirteen, going through my first cancer, I visualize myself inside my body destroying cancer.
It’s so funny you say that because as you were speaking, I was going to draw it that now we have people draw cancer and attacking it. I think it was Paul O’Neill from the New York Yankees that was one of the first pro athletes that use visualization for batting practice. He would picture the bat hitting the ball in his mind’s eye X amount of times before he ever picked up the bat because you’re creating the neural pathway.
I did that to beat both of the cancers. I pictured myself in a little tiny microscopic spaceship flying around my blood vessels.
The magic school bus. Do you remember that?
Yes, it was essentially like that. I was firing laser beams and missiles laden with chemotherapy into the cancer cells. I also took that furthermore into when I went up to go climb Everest and every other mountain. I would visualize myself from a first-person point of view taking the last few steps to the summit of Everest, where I would go even further. I would smell the ozone. I would hear the Styrofoam crunching of the snow under my feet. I use all my senses and what people don’t realize is that you have to have an emotional attachment to it. It’s how did I feel up there because the brain doesn’t know the difference between vivid visualization and reality. Even before you begin, you have to know you’re successful.
What you said is that’s why all the negative talk inside and the external, when we say negative things about ourselves, our brain doesn’t know the difference if it’s true or not. If you speak to yourself in a way you would never let anybody else speak to you, your brain acts like, “I’m a failure. I’m so dumb.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I was doing a little bit of work with a group of high school students. I think it was in 2021. I asked them a question, “Who do you talk to more than anyone else throughout the day?” The answers were like, “My mom, my dad, my best friend.” One student said, “It’s myself.” I’m like, “How much of that self-talk or that internal dialogue is negative?” They’re like, “I don’t know, 75%, 80%?” I’m like, “Exactly.” I continued the question. I was like, “Would you be friends with someone who was that negative to you? Why do you do it to yourself?”
How did they react?
It was like his head blew up. He was like, “I need to focus on that.” Human beings are creatures of habit. That old saying, “You are what you eat.” You are what you consume. If you’re constantly consuming negativity and your negative internal dialogue is 80% self-defeating, what do you think is going to happen to yourself? People say, “I want to be stronger. I want to do this,” then they think to themselves when they go into a situation, “Don’t stutter. Don’t be scared.”
The brain doesn’t know the difference between vivid visualization and reality. Even before you begin, you have to know you’re successful.
“Don’t strike out.”
A perfect example is if you’re walking down the street telling yourself, “Don’t trip,” you’re going to fall on your face. If you tell yourself, “Stand tall. Walk strong,” it changes your whole life.
I think about the people that are so negative. A better example is you go, “It’s such a beautiful day.” They’re like, “You know it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” There’s always negativity. Being around people that are like that is toxic. Sometimes I’m around people and I feel like I need to take a shower because it’s gross. I’m sure you feel this way. When I work with clients, almost with the first conversation I know who’s got the mindset and who needs a new mindset. It’s all about relationships. It’s all about connections. Who wants to hear negative feedback? That’s where you learn. I’m almost like, “Tell me.” I wish I wasn’t like that because I work with people like, “That’s great. Thank you. Let me work on it. Let me look at it.” How do you bring that to your work and the people you help? If people can’t learn from you, they are a lost cause.
A great way to answer that is to give an example. You almost hit that too. I was thinking, “She’s going to get it.” You ask someone, “How is your day going?” “It’s an awful day. My day sucks. It’s horrible.” I never say I never have a bad day. If I’m having a “bad day,” the response is different. I have a less-than-ideal day. Many people don’t understand how much it affects them. You say, “How’s your day going?” “It’s all right.” It’s not perfect. It’s not ideal. It’s less than ideal. If you look at it from that perspective and start looking at it from a different angle, you can change your whole life but you have to be mindful of how you talk to yourself. You have to catch yourself. If you look at what holds people back, there are usually four things. I call them the GIALs. It’s the Gremlins, the Interpretations, the Assumptions and the Limiting beliefs.
The first one is the most difficult. We’ll talk about that one. It’s the gremlin. It’s that little guy or girl on your shoulder going, “You’re not strong enough to do that. You’re not smart enough to do that. You don’t have the education. You don’t have the experience.” I think that the gremlin was there. I call mine Cooper. His name’s Cooper. He was there at one point in someone’s life in your past to help you and to protect yourself. However, now that we’re older, I tell him if I start hearing him bitching in my ear, “You can’t do that. Cooper, shut up.” First of all, I pay attention to that. I tell him, “You were here at one point in my life to protect me. However, we’re working together because we both want what’s best for me.”
Our defense is initially protecting us. They are adaptive and then they become maladaptive. How do you take Cooper that protected you but now, that same protection is holding you back? How do you do that?
How do I move forward with that protection or without?
He’s presenting it as, “I’m going to protect you,” and you’re feeling it like an albatross around your neck.
I tell him that we both want what’s best for me. We both want me to be successful. I’m not talking like if you have these voices in your head, you need to be in a tight jacket and around the room.
We have a diagnosis for that.
I don’t know that I had a legitimate conversation with this guy, “I know you’re here at one point in my life to protect me. However, we both want what’s best for me. Why don’t we work together?”
You don’t take the approach, “I know what’s best for me, not you.” You take the we-approach.
We, because at one point he was there to protect me. “I know that you’re probably sending a car right now to pick me up. Don’t worry, those people are your friends, Sean.”
Cooper is there going, “No, they’re not.”
“Cooper is gone. You’re on your own now.” We are working together because at one time he was going to protect me. Probably for me, it was when I was sick and I was 60-70 pounds overweight. I was going to try to hop back in the pool to swim one dual meet so I could qualify for championships because I was undefeated in swimming. I’ve made it to nationals numerous times. He was there looking at us in the mirror when I put on that oh-so-flattering Speedo.
I was bulging out everywhere because I was 60 pounds overweight. He was like, “You’re not going to do this.” “Why?” “It’s because you’re embarrassed.” “No, I’m not. I want to do this.” I forced myself to push forward. Now, I look at something like Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. I had a panic attack. I was days away from any village. I’m sitting there freaking out. I remember very vividly. I was sitting in a tent. There were two tents. We had one group here, one group here, so basically two people.
You’re leading this group, I take?
No, I was going up. We were just together. I was there for guidance essentially.
I think you should clarify that. That’s good for everybody to know who is thinking about joining you.
We were good. I don’t do Aconcagua. I lead up Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain. There’s nothing tactical about it. It’s a hiking trip. I remember being in the tent eating and all of a sudden, I could feel my respiratory in my upper chest as opposed to breathing through my diaphragm, which I’ve taught myself my whole life because after losing that lung, I need to utilize the one that I have. I started freaking out. I put my bowl down. I went into the next tent where my sleeping bag and the sleeping pad were. I laid down and went to sleep. I woke up and I was okay. Still to this day, I have no idea where it came from, why it happened and what the trigger was but it happened.
Had you had anxiety attacks before that? A lot of the entrepreneurs I work with suffer from anxiety. Can I do this with you? Tell me as much as you can remember what you were doing the day before and the morning or the day of the anxiety attack. Whatever you remember.
The mountain was four camps before we went to the summit. We were at base camp moving to camp two. One of the guys had a serious breathing issue. I had to carry a double load, so I had my backpack on my back and his pack on my front. I was literally carrying probably 80-90 pounds up in altitude to set up that camp. When we went from that camp to the next camp, I was exhausted because of the previous day. I did that twice. There were two people who that happened to. We went up towards the other camp and I was exhausted. Maybe it was from burning the candle at both ends, as my dad would say, but I think I was physiologically spent.
There’s no reason you should allow something like a word to control your emotions and feelings.
I have a different interpretation. Do you want to hear it?
I’m not saying that that wasn’t a factor but I think it might have had more to do with the reason behind you carrying the backpacks. If the person hurt their leg or their arm, you would have been good to go, but it might have touched into something deeper where they couldn’t breathe. It might have triggered something that you worked so hard to keep Cooper in check on without being aware of it for whatever it’s worth. How does that feel when I say it?
It somewhat feels like that but there also could be some truth to it. I’m trying to see it now. Going back to it, I think it taps more into my fear of failure.
It’s the fear of failure. The failure of the one healthy lung not working but you were more in touch with the physical manifestation of fear. We know that our body’s physical symptoms remember what our mind’s forgotten. What happened when you had an anxiety attack? Where you hyperventilating or could you not catch your breath? Which one was it?
I didn’t hyperventilate either.
Could you catch a deep breath?
I can catch a deep breath but it was more a mental thing. It was more that I was getting scared more than anything else.
Fears are unconsciously based.
There are a handful of tools that I use now. One is I acknowledge and validate. I acknowledge the fact that it’s there. I validate that, “Was happening is not going to be there forever.” More often than not when people try to fight something like that, it gets worse.
I go through it. You got to go through it. It’s like a tightness. When you’re going through hell, you keep going.
It’s a perceived fear. I was in no danger. It was a perceived fear that my mind and Cooper made up.
Most anxieties are irrational.
Another perfect example is for years I would go in for my checkup. Because no one’s ever had these two cancers before, I will never be cured. I go in once a year for blood work. That’s when the doctors say, “You got another year on life.” It used to be that the six-letter word cancer would cause fear. I realized, “Why the hell am I allowing this six-letter word to have control over me?” I realized that one way to get rid of it was I went to the bathroom and I stared at myself in the mirror. I said, “Cancer.” I said that 30 times just getting it out. Right around 20 to 25, I started laughing at myself. I’m like, “What the hell are you doing?” I realized that there’s no reason I should allow something like a word to have control over my emotions and my feelings.
By that exercise, were you facing the reality of cancer or trying to have it loosen its grip on you?
I was lessening its control over me. With each passing word that I said. Even now, when people hear the word cancer, they shudder but it’s not such a bad thing.
They whispered, “He’s got cancer.”
“He has the C-word.”
The reason why I wanted to focus a little bit on that anxiety is that I want the audience to realize that you are as human as every single person here.
Remember, I told you that the only difference between me and anybody else is I have a warmer jacket.
What do some people need to embrace that they might not know they need to embrace so that they can live their best life and their core values? What are the things you want people to learn to take away from this conversation? There are not many people that have had the life experiences and the triumph through the tragedy that you’ve had. What are some real practical concrete skills people can take away?
I was up on stage giving a keynote presentation in front of about 1,500 people. As I was wrapping up, I decided to throw a curveball and I stopped. I asked people, “By a show of hands, how many people have taken time out of their lives to write down their personal core values or what matters most to you?” I think out of 1,500 people, 5 raised their hands.
When people are anxious, they’re living in the future. When people are depressed, they’re living in the past. But when you’re mindful and focused on the present moment, all that goes away. Nothing really matters.
Were there entrepreneurs in the audience?
They were all doctors. I continued by saying, “How can you move forward in life without knowing what matters most to you? How can you make conscious choices without understanding what you value most?” I told them, “I put together a core values assessment. Send me an email. I will send it to you.” After that, I think I got 300 people, which is pretty good with a number like that. Usually, it’s two who do something but I got about 300 people. I had to copy and paste an email but they all got it. Now they have a list of personal core values. In fact, I have mine right here. I do it every three weeks.
I would like to get a copy of that.
Shoot me. What I do is I take it one step further because this is a core values assessment. On the other side is how I have people pick out their top ten personal core values and rank and rate how they’re living each one of those values.
My core value as evidenced by.
That’s correct. It’s usually very eye-opening because people say, “Family is one of my personal core values.” How much are you walking the talk? Cut the BS. It’s between you and yourself. On a scale of 1 to 10, if you value family, it should be a 10.
How much time is on your calendar? We schedule what’s important to us. If you don’t schedule family time in this world, you probably won’t have it.
If you don’t use it, you lose it. Imagine seeing the dentist once every year without brushing your teeth every day.
You lose it.
What’s going to happen to relationships? What’s going to happen to the family?
What is number two?
How many are we going to do?
I don’t know. We’ll see. I want to keep you guessing.
I would say the second one would be being mindful. Be aware that if you’re driving in traffic or if anything negative happens to you, pay attention to your ears. How do they feel? Let me back up. A lot of people don’t even understand what being mindful is. Let’s try something here. What I want you to do is to pick out five unique separate sounds when I’m done talking. Go through your mind and listen for five unique different things and say that to yourself. For me, “I hear Rumba downstairs banging things around. I hear the alarm. My wife has opened the front door.”
Say that to yourself. Pick out five things that are unique sounds around you. That’s practicing informal mindfulness and bringing yourself to the present moment. When we talked about being anxious, that’s when people live in the future. When people are depressed, they’re living in the past, but when you’re mindful and you’re focused on the present moment, all that stuff goes away. Nothing matters.
Can you tie that into being intentional?
It obviously depends on what you’re trying to do at the moment and I’ll go back to going up Kilimanjaro because that’s all that’s in mind now because we’re leaving in a few days.
Is the summit night the first or the last night?
That’s day five, night five, morning 6:00. We wake up at 11:00 PM, leave at midnight and we hike until 6:30 or 10:00 AM because it all depends on how slow or fast the group is going. At one point in the night, you will be a walking zombie. You will not be able to think properly because your brain is hypoxic.
It’s the lack of oxygen.
You have to understand that people are motivated by different things. Before we leave, I have people fill in this blank. I give them a bracelet with this stamped on there. When you’re a walking zombie, what one word is going to continue pushing you forward? “I am blank,” or “Because of that blank,” whatever you fill in there or whatever word. I’ll ask you, “If you’re spent, what’s one word that you could fill in that blank that would remind you instantly to continue putting one foot in front of the other?” “I am blank.”
As soon as you said it the word that came to my mind is strong.
The past doesn’t necessarily make you who your future is going to become.
That would help people because everybody’s motivated by different things. I would go up behind that person and be like, “What are you?” You’d be like, “What do you mean what am I? I’m a human being.” I was like, “No, what’s on your bracelet? What do you say to yourself?” “I am strong.” That’s your reminder to be in the present moment.
Even with the hypoxia, people can recall that?
Absolutely and if they don’t remember it, it’s right there. That would help them be intentional on why they are on the mountain and what gets them moving forward.
That’s the gremlin and mindfulness intention.
It’s the I in GAIL. Those would be interpretations. Most of us learned from the past like our parents. It takes money to make money. We all know that’s not true sometimes. It’s not a universal law and you have to relearn that. Also, the past doesn’t necessarily make who your future is going to become.
It informs your future but it doesn’t define it.
Your future hasn’t been written.
That’s where you have control. Is there anything else you’d like to share before I want you then to tell everybody how they can find out about you and tell us about your published book? There’s a no-brainer for the title Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World.
We have a new one.
Being Unstoppable. I did not know that. When did that come out?
A few months. I will send you a copy.
I’d love it. Thank you. I read all the books people send me, cover to cover.
This is called Being Unstoppable: Conquering Your Everest. It’s part of the seven series that I’m working on. It’s the seven summits, so I learned from each one of the peaks that made me think back to how I became stronger. The first one helps people with visualization. The second one I’m working on is Kilimanjaro into the Self.
How can people find out about you? Where would you like them to go?
That’s the easiest question I’ve had since we started talking.
I don’t want you to say I never gave you a favor.
It’s at SeanSwarner.com.
Thank you so much, Sean, for being our guest. This is one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve had in a long time. I promised what I delivered. Sean kicked ass, so make sure you like, comment, share and subscribe to The Trust Doctor, restoring trust and enriching significant relationships. We will see you next time.
- Sean Swarner
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World
- Being Unstoppable
- The Art of Impossible
About Sean Swarner
His first goal was to crawl 8 feet from the hospital bed to the bathroom. He went on to Redefine Impossible by climbing 29,035 feet to the top of Mt. Everest with one lung! From there he stood atop the highest point on all 7 continents, skied to the South and North Poles, and completed the Hawaii Ironman. Sean has been interviewed by Steve Harvey, CBS Evening News, Fox & Friends, The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Early Show, Huffington Post, Outside the Lines, Sports Center, Washington Post, USA Today, Sports Center, and countless others. His numerous articles with thought leaders such as Sir Richard Branson and Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu put him in a category by himself. The first cancer survivor to stand on the top of the world!
With only one functioning lung, a prognosis of fourteen days to live, and being in a medically induced coma for a year, Sean Swarner is the first cancer survivor to stand on top of the world… Mt. Everest. Sean has broken through defined human limitation in order to redefine the way the world views success.
Sean was diagnosed with two deadly, different, and unrelated forms of cancer, once at the age of thirteen and again at the age of sixteen. After an incredibly poor prognosis, and being read his last rites, Sean astounded the medical community when he survived both these brutal diseases. He realized that after defeating cancer twice, no challenge would ever be too great, no peak too high.
Sean proved his theory when he crested the peak of Mt. Everest. As the first cancer survivor to do so, Sean decided to continue climbing and has since topped the highest peaks in Africa, Europe, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and North America, thus completing the “7-Summits”. Upon skiing to both the South and the North Poles, Sean completed the Explorer’s Grand Slam.
With the completion of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, Sean is the only person in history to accomplish these inhuman feats.
As Sean continues to defy the odds, test his own endurance and inspire and motivate people around the world, he shares his message of healing, hope, and triumph with cancer patients worldwide. Sean also serves as a source of inspiration as the founder of the non-profit organization, The Cancer Climber Association, as author of the book “Keep Climbing,” and as a motivational speaker to corporations, universities, and other organizations around the globe.
- *2-Time Cancer Survivor *1st Cancer Survivor to Summit Mount Everest
- *1st Cancer Survivor to Complete the 7-Summits
- *Hawaii Ironman Finisher
- Author of “Keep Climbing: How I Beat Cancer and Reached the Top of the World” Internationally Renowned Inspirational and Motivational Speaker
- President of Swarner Expeditions, LLC.
- Co-Founder of the Cancer Climber Association
- Endurance and Marathon Runner
- Grand Traverse Competitor South and North Poles
- *Only person in the world to have gone through and accomplished this.