• Image about Sean Swarner
Swarner on the Continental Divide posing for the cover of his book, Keep Climbing.

Brian Novak, 39, was someone who reached the same epiphany. Two months after building Swarner’s website, the freelance web developer was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Novak relied on Swarner as a confidant following surgery to remove the tumor and through six months of chemo. A year later, Novak, along with a woman who had lost her leg to bone cancer, reached the top of Kilimanjaro.
“Here I was, a year after finishing chemo, a year after being totally wiped out and weak,” he says. “To climb one of the seven summits a year later and be literally on top of the world both physically and mentally — it was a defining moment in my life.”

Creating those memories, both for himself and for those who are fighting cancer, has consumed Swarner’s life since he was in his mid-20s and was finally able to come to terms with his own childhood.

At 13, Swarner twisted his knee while coming down from a basketball layup. Within 24 hours, the sinewy jock had ballooned to “look like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” he says. “My parents didn’t recognize their own son.”

The small Ohio town where he grew up didn’t have the medical facilities to make a proper diagnosis, and his doctor believed he had pneumonia. A week later, he was in a Columbus, Ohio, hospital, and the diagnosis came in as stage-four Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the last stage before death. He was given three months to live.

His parents didn’t reveal to him the severity of his disease, but he did his own ?research in the hospital library. Still, the dire predictions did not deter him, and he spent more than a year battling through brutal chemotherapy and steroid treatments that caused him to gain 60 pounds.

“It’s awkward enough going into high school as a normal kid,” he says. “My friends are chasing girls. I’m losing hair all over my body. I didn’t want anyone to see me.”