The Climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro by Cancer Survivors and Caregivers
By Dr. Richard Deming
It’s 1 a.m. and I am wide-awake. I am laying in my sleeping bag in a tent in the rainforest jungle of Tanzania writing in my journal by the light of my headlamp. I pretend to be Ernest Hemingway writing “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, sans the whiskey. The jungle is alive with sounds: monkeys, birds, babbling stream, and snoring tent mates. We are on the mountain and we are headed UP. It is the first night in tents and I can hear, amidst the snores, sounds of other restless campers as zippers unzip and folks wander out to find the “restroom”. It will take a while for us to get used to the rhythm of camping on the slopes of this African mountain.
Cindy, a 43-year-old breast cancer survivor and mother of three provided a moving reflection for us before dinner last night. We were all assembled in the “mess tent” for dinner. Included in our group was her husband, Jim. She told us of the near meltdown that she suffered the previous night. She was missing her children and she wasn’t sure she even wanted to begin climbing this damn mountain. She then reflected on the reason that she had decided to join this journey in the first place. She isn’t here to prove to herself that she is a mountain climber. She said that she is here for “Them”. She went on to explain who the “Them” are in her life. Her children, first and foremost, are her inspiration. She wants them to know that her cancer diagnosis does not define or limit their mother. “Them” also includes her own mother who is surviving stage 4 ovarian cancer. “Them” includes Jim’s father who lost his life to cancer. “Them” includes all of those whose lives have been cut unnecessarily short by this disease. She vowed to climb for those who can’t climb and we vowed to support her every step. Tears fell and hugs were exchanged. Bring on that mountain!
Journeys into nature and, in particular, journeys up to the tops of mountains, invoke an awakening to spirituality. In the faces and cultures of Africa we are becoming aware that many people in the world do things differently and have beliefs that are different from our own. This journey has the potential teach us to see that manifestations of the divine may come to us in ways, shapes, and forms unlike those we have previously witnessed.
We also bring an interfaith spirituality to this journey. Father Frank is a 71-year-old Catholic priest and prostate cancer survivor. He is one of the 18 survivors with us tonight. His niece, Annie, is a thyroid cancer survivor, a nurse and an Army officer. She is accompanying her Uncle Frank on this quest. Tomorrow morning Father Frank will celebrate Mass with us in an interfaith service that will welcomingly include our porters and guides, some of whom are Muslim.
Beverly is a 59-year-old breast cancer survivor. She is Jewish. This week she will honor and celebrate the anniversary of her father’s death in the Jewish tradition of yahrzeit. She shared with us the meaning and the rituals of that ceremony. She will say a prayer as she lights a candle at sundown on the evening before the anniversary of her father’s death. The candle will burn for 24 hours. We are not quite sure how we will do it, but our group is committed to making it happened. I’m sure that as we help her commemorate the anniversary of her father’s death, we will also reflect back on the lives of parents that we, too, have lost. I think again of my mom and dad, each having lost their lives at age 52. We all find meaning and comfort in sharing spiritual traditions with others.
The manifestations of religious traditions that we will celebrate together beneath the African sky will bind us together in ways similar to the bond that cancer has brought to our group. The often unspoken possibility of death’s nearness not only inspires us to live each day to the fullest, it also leads us to seek wisdom and encourages us to look for the presence of the divine in the world around us. As St. Thomas of Aquinas reminds us, we can see the footprints of God in the wonders of nature.
Tomorrow our climb gets steep and we pursue higher ground. Tonight, I lay back down on a pillow of prayer flags that support my head and fill my dreams with memories of departed patients and family members who are making this journey with me in spirit to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.