Cancer Survivors Climb Mountains

Written By:Stacy Simon

"I know there were people in this group who surprised themselves. They didn't think they could do it."

Gail Endres

Prostate cancer survivor Gail Endres, 65, says it’s amazing what people can do when they set their mind to it. He witnessed this firsthand as a group of cancer survivors and caregivers reached the 19,000-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. For some, it was a real struggle.

“I know there were people in this group who surprised themselves,” said Endres. “They didn’t think they could do it.”

The trip was the “birth of a dream” of Richard Deming, MD, medical director of Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines, Iowa and American Cancer Society volunteer. He had an epiphany during a trip to Mount Everest 10 years ago, and came back with the spark of an idea to use the physical challenge of mountain climbing to help cancer survivors and others explore how adversity can enhance their lives and give them a greater appreciation for life and each other.

Deming and adventurer Charlie Wittmack eventually founded the nonprofit organization, Above and Beyond Cancer. The group offers adventures to inspire cancer survivors and raises money to fight the disease.

A message from the doctor

Endres’ cancer journey began in 2002 when he was 56 years old. He underwent a physical exam as part of his preparation for a bicycle touring event he had taken part in every year for 27 years. In 2002 when he returned home after the 7-day ride, a message from his doctor was waiting.

The doctor told Endres that a screening test showed an elevated level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in his blood and she wanted to repeat the test. The new test showed the same result, and Endres next went to a urologist who performed a core needle biopsy. The doctor removed a small amount of tissue from the prostate, which was found to contain cancer. Endres said the news was devastating.

Endres spent an anxious few weeks deciding what to do about his prostate cancer. He conferred with his oldest daughter, a doctor, and together, they chose surgery.

He said, “I wanted them to get it all.”

After his surgery, Endres continued to have regular PSA tests, and his level continued to rise gradually. In 2006, he met Deming, who prescribed radiation therapy. Five evenings a week after his shift at the John Deere company, Endres had radiation treatments – 39 in all.

‘Inspiring and fascinating’

Afterward, Endres continued to see Deming, but not at the hospital. He took classes at the Healthy Living Center, which is a partnership between the local YMCA and Mercy Medical Center. Classes for cancer survivors include movement, yoga, a lecture series, and a spin class (using stationary bicycles) taught by Deming.

Deming spoke to the survivor group and laid out his plan to take cancer survivors and caregivers on a trip to the base camp of Mount Everest. The idea was to take on a physical challenge that would lead to personal growth and a renewed commitment to fighting cancer. Endres had recently retired from his job. Though he had traveled all over the US, he had never been out of the country, and didn’t even have a passport.

He said, “I’ve always been fascinated with Everest, but I didn’t know someone that was doing something like that. Deming came and spoke, and it was inspiring and fascinating and perfect timing in my retirement and wanting to do something like that.”

In April 2011, 14 cancer survivors and 14 caregivers went on the 3-week trip to the base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal. Endres called it a very emotional trip. He described the snow and mountains as incredibly beautiful, and the people who live there as content and happy. “It’s amazing to see, compared to the way we live, things we have, we’re so spoiled. There they were with so few things and perfectly content.”

While there, the group held a Relay For Life event, the highest altitude Relay ever. That record would stand for just 9 months.

Mount Kilimanjaro

After a few months of telling the story of the Everest trip, Deming realized there was a demand for more adventure opportunities for cancer survivors. For this second trip he chose Mount Kilimanjaro. Once again, Endres signed up.

He was among a group of 41, 21 of them cancer survivors. Also on the trip were 2 American Cancer Society staff members, who were there to support the trip and the survivors. Gail Richman, American Cancer Society’s managing director of business practices, said she didn’t hesitate when offered the chance to go. She said the trip was about physical exertion, but also about spirit, and “digging in deep.”

Richman said, “It was a very spiritual trip in a lot of ways. Dick Deming was always reminding people of the bigger picture; it was not just about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Endres said the Kilimanjaro trip, in January 2012, was more grueling than the trip to Everest. The team stayed in tents, not lodges, and trekked up narrower and steeper paths. During the last few days, as they struggled up over the lip of the mountain, they often took a step, only to slide back. Endres said team members supported and encouraged each other, sometimes gracefully and other times a little more seriously: “Don’t say you can’t make it! I know you can do this!”

The group camped for the night in the crater at 19,000 feet. They lit paper luminaries to spell out “hope” in the snow. As the sun set and pinks and purples reflected off the ice, they formed a huddle and one of the cancer survivors, a Catholic priest, led them in prayer.

Prayer flags are part of the culture in that region, and the hikers brought with them 800 flags stitched by a volunteer back in Iowa and decorated with photographs, drawings, and sentiments honoring the lives of people who battled cancer. They strung up the flags and circled the word “hope” as they set the new altitude record for an American Cancer Society Relay For Life.

Before climbing back down the mountain, each team member vowed to do what he or she could to fight cancer and save lives.

Benefits of physical activity

Today, Endres says he’s in the best shape of his life and feels strong.

He said, “Being a senior citizen, I hope to inspire people from my generation to get physically active. The US is in crisis with obesity and healthy living. I want to encourage people to do something more active. There is a lack of wanting to watch diet and exercise in our country.”

Deming said Endres was a valuable member of the team. “Gail is just a gentle, quiet, strong person whose presence on the trip added to the serenity for all those who participated. He’s just a gem.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Due to the impact of COVID-19 on American Cancer Society resources, we are no longer able to review new submissions for Stories of Hope.

American Cancer Society news stories are copyrighted material and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.