Woods cancer survivor climbs Mount Kilimanjaro

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 10, 2016

 Campbell, left, and Sean Swarner, of Colorado, who co-founded the Cancer Climber Association, take a break while trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Campbell, left, and Sean Swarner, of Colorado, who co-founded the Cancer Climber Association, take a break while trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Photo provided by Pete Campbell


GROSSE POINTE WOODS — About four years ago, Pete Campbell was sitting on a hospital bed at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit, getting ready for treatment to beat cancer a second time.

But the Grosse Pointe Woods resident didn’t feel like fighting; he felt like giving up. He remembered how sick the chemotherapy made him the first time he battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and wasn’t sure he wanted to go through it again, especially since, “There’s no guarantee I’m going to make it.”

But within a few minutes, Campbell received a text message from a complete stranger named Sean Swarner, who co-founded the Cancer Climber Association with his brother Seth in Boulder, Colorado. The message included a video of Swarner, known as the first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest, which stretches through China and Nepal in Asia. 

After viewing Swarner’s story about beating cancer twice as a teenager and his accomplishment of climbing — with use of only one lung — other mountains including Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Campbell was “hell-bent on beating my cancer.” After three months, when chemotherapy treatments weren’t working, doctors put Campbell on an experimental gene therapy drug to shrink tumors in his lymph nodes. 

In November 2012, Campbell, now 43, underwent a successful bone marrow transplant procedure. He remained at the Karmanos Cancer Institute for 20 days to recover. Part of his recuperation included walking around the nurses’ station 10 laps a day. He might not have known it at the time, but those strolls began the training regimen that the 1990 Lake Shore High School graduate would need to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in the country of Tanzania.

Campbell, now cancer-free, climbed to the top of the mountain in July 2015 with Swarner and a group of other hikers by his side. A segment on Campbell’s climb along with Swarner was featured on NBC’s “Today” morning show Feb. 16 and can be viewed on YouTube. 

“Taking people up Kilimanjaro, I see a transformation,” Swarner said on “Today.” “They make this trek. They get to the top, and they come back down, and I can see that they’re stronger and more confident. And it gives them the tools to realize, ‘Hey, if I can conquer that mountain, I can do anything.’”

Campbell’s journey to the top
Once a year, Swarner’s nonprofit organization provides a grant for one hiker to climb the 19,342-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, and it chose Campbell in 2015. Campbell initially thought it was a joke.

“It was April Fool’s Day (2015),” Campbell said. “Sean calls and says, ‘What are you doing this July? Pack your bags. You’re going to Africa.’”

The next day, Campbell, a one-time Macomb Community College student, received an email from Swarner with an itinerary and a gear list for the climb. The joke was over. 

“All of a sudden, I realize it’s real,” said Campbell, who was healthy enough to travel halfway across the world and who began running each day to get ready for the climb. “My doctors were telling me my numbers were great.”

Last July, Campbell flew from Detroit to Washington, D.C., to Ethiopia and then to Tanzania in Africa. That’s where he met up with Swarner and six others from the U.S. hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro to honor loved ones with cancer, who beat it or who died from it, including Stephen Beal, of Broomfield, Colorado, who honored his late sister, Bethany Anne Schulenberg. The crew funded their own trips, Campbell said. 

On July 14, the group began its five-day ascent to the top. Campbell said Tanzania is eight hours ahead, time-wise. The group had three guides that traveled with them and carried their tents and other supplies.

“The guides sang in Swahili. It was more like chanting,” said Campbell, who documented the trip by journaling every night and taking more than 1,500 photos. He added that the group walked 4 or 5 miles and then would stop to eat. 

“Food is all geared toward high energy. Carbs, vegetables. Everything was soup-based and stew-like,” he said. 

Medication was provided for symptoms of dizziness, nausea and lack of oxygen, if needed. Swarner also had an iPod filled with music. At times, Campbell and his fellow hikers ran into other groups. There also were various checkpoints at ranger stations along the way and no showers. They slept in tents at night.

“As soon as the sun goes down, it gets so cold you don’t want to go out (of) your tent,” Campbell said. “You’re surrounded by glaciers and the snow.”

Campbell said that on day one, the terrain was mostly rainforest with plenty of green plant life, humidity, monkeys and birds.

“On the second day, we made it above the clouds. Day two was real rocky and real steep,” he said. “Day three, it’s almost like a desert. It was like being on the moon. On the fourth and fifth day, it’s all shale and ash.”  

On the last night, the group slept at 16,000 feet. They also passed around a flag and signed the names of those they walked in honor of on it. Campbell wrote down 20 names, including his late brother, Eric, who died from colon cancer. They left for the summit at midnight.

“At exactly 18,000 feet, the sun came up. You could see the curvature of the earth,” Campbell said. 

At 18,885 feet, they reached Stella Point and knew in another 45 minutes they would reach Mount Kilimanjaro’s peak. Campbell had tears in his eyes as he made the last leg of the quest.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion,” he said. “I had happy tears. I can’t believe I’m going to make it. There were so many thoughts going through my head.” 

By 9 a.m. July 18, they reached the mountaintop and buried the flag. 

“It was the greatest physical achievement I ever accomplished,” Campbell said. “It was physically exhausting.” 

Once Campbell made it to the summit, he called his wife, Erica; son, Dalton, 12; and stepdaughter, Sabrina, 11, from a special phone. He told them, “I did it. I’m standing on top of the world.” 

Because of lack of oxygen, the group only stayed at the summit about 20 minutes and then made the descent back down. It only took one day to return to the bottom. To relax after their life-changing journey, the group enjoyed an African safari for one week. 

Campbell received a certificate for his accomplishment. Now that he has done what might have been the impossible, Campbell hopes to inspire others facing adversity.

“If I can give someone help the way Sean gave it to me, I’m paying it forward,” Campbell said. “I want to continue working with Cancer Climber and Sean. He’s just the most giving person I’ve ever met. Biggest heart. Nicest guy. I am proud to call him my friend.”

For more information on the Cancer Climber Association, visit www.cancerclimber.org.