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The Front Line
The Front Line: Charles D. Blanke, MD, SWOG Chair

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Climbing Kilimanjaro

Mar 06, 2015 - Though technological limitations -- specifically a lack of previously-assured cell service for our American phones -- put a crimp in my plans for real-time correspondence from the mountain, some missives did eventually get out. If you want some details about the climb, mountain geography, etc., you can read those at facebook.com/ClimbforCancerClinicalTrials or in the Cancer Letter that came out this week. The Facebook page also features some wonderful photos from the climb, many generously shared by my climbing team colleagues.

If you don't plan to read through those posts, here are a few of the high points (pun intended?) from our Kilimanjaro ascent:

  • the unbelievable beauty of the night sky on the mountain, as we were surrounded by more stars than you could ever imagine
  • sleeping semi-soundly at altitude but waking up periodically gasping for breath
  • the landscape around Lava Tower, which looked like the surface of the moon, though snow-covered and swirled with clouds
  • coming within a hair of calling off the summit attempt the day before we reached the peak because of massive snowfall
  • scrambling up a number of 5- to 15-foot rock climbs on our final approach to the summit, exertion which, given that we were functioning on about half of the oxygen we wanted at that point, just about knocked out everyone in the party
  • stopping at the rim of Kilimanjaro's crater at 18,000+ feet to view beautiful but much smaller than expected glaciers (and having a number in the party develop an acute cough, which probably represented early and mild pulmonary edema)
  • arriving at the summit just as a monster storm hit, complete with lightning, thunder, high winds, and giant hail
  • most significant and memorable, unfurling our banner honoring 200,000 SWOG trial volunteers in the few stormy minutes we had at Uhuru Peak (and later having a patient thank us for bringing "him" up the mountain to its summit)

Apart from a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, what did we accomplish with our Kilimanjaro Climb for Cancer Clinical Trials? For one thing, we have raised well over $100,000 thus far via swog.org/kilimanjaro, to supplement our research funding and provide some support to the organizations that partnered with us on the campaign (the Alliance, the Children's Oncology Group, and the Conquer Cancer Foundation). This represents a significant chunk of our budgetary deficit from 2014-2015.

We've also expanded significantly the SWOG and Hope Foundation community, bringing in more than 200 new donors, many who weren't previously familiar with SWOG or Hope or the work we do.

We built a vibrant Facebook community more than 500 strong, that has helped us raise awareness of SWOG and its contributions.

Perhaps most importantly, we raised awareness of, or at least reminded the community, just how valuable the contributions of those who participate in clinical trials really are, and of the debt all of us -- both those touched by cancer and those yet to be -- owe to these pioneers who have gone before us.

One of the physical artifacts to come out of the campaign is a manifest with the initials of almost 200,000 SWOG trial participants, an artifact we will proudly display at our semi-annual group meetings, less to evoke the memory of the Kilimanjaro Climb for Cancer Clinical Trials than to inspire and renew us by reminding us physically of the scope of what SWOG has accomplished.

If you attend our group meeting in San Francisco, please take a minute to view the banner, to get a clearer sense of how large a number 200,000 really is, and consider that, for each person signified there who partnered directly with us in our research, there are hundreds of others whose encounters with cancer were eased because of the work of that partnership.

And that's worth climbing any mountain.


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