San Francisco-based Heather Millar is a breast cancer survivor. A journalist for more than 25 years, she has covered health care and science for many national magazines and websites.
We want to accomplish something. We want to love and be loved. We want to explore, achieve, stand out. Yet we will all die someday.
A few weeks ago, I was saddened to see a news story reporting that Ian Toothill had died. The personal trainer was 48 and had metastatic bowel cancer. Last June, while stage 4, Toothill reached the summit of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. I interviewed his support team — he was hard to reach at the various alpine base camps – for a magazine feature I did for CURE about why some people find a cancer diagnosis an inspiration to do something radical.
I was gobsmacked to think of any cancer patient trying to climb Mt. Everest, but especially one with terminal disease. When I was nearing the end of my chemo for stage 1 breast cancer, I had a hard time climbing the stairs, much less a mountain.
I've been thinking a lot about Toothill in the last few weeks. Why would he push himself like that? Why do the rest of us admire these kinds of crazy stunts so much?
Why do people start a business or raise a million dollars while fighting cancer? Isn't fighting cancer enough of a big deal all on its own?
I used to think that people set themselves to take on these massive challenges in order to distract themselves from their cancer and their mortality.
But as I've been thinking about Toothill over the last month or so, I've turned that idea around. Now I wonder if climbing Mt. Everest was actually a way to face his mortality, rather than to avoid it.
We often talk about cancer as if it's the exception, the lightning strike, the really bad card. But really, if you think about it, cancer just forces us to acknowledge the reality that has been with us since the day we were born: We will all die someday.
If mortality is real, then why do any of us do anything? Why don't we just stay in bed with a gallon of chocolate fudge ice cream?
Because there's something in the flawed, goofy, luminous human spirit that pushes us to strive. We want to make our time matter. We want to accomplish something. We want to love and be loved. We want to explore, achieve, stand out. Yet we will all die someday. Who knows if anyone will remember us a century after we're gone?
And yet, we toil on. We face the challenge each day, whether it's Mt. Everest or a couple dozen stairs in our home. Each time we decide to show up, to make the effort, to face our fear, we make our days matter. That is heroic. Ian Toothill, stage 4 cancer patient at the top of world is heroic. But so are you, in whatever way you choose to be.