Sean Swarner has heard all kinds of questions as an inspirational speaker, author and adventurer. But on a September Zoom video conference — days after his latest climb of the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — Swarner pondered a novel question about the physiology of his lungs.
Swarner, 46, lives with one functioning lung due to scar tissue in his right lung from surviving two types of cancer as a teenager. In an homage to the Disney film “Finding Nemo,” Swarner calls his right lung his “lucky fin.”
Swarner not only survived Hodgkin’s disease at 13 years old and Askin’s sarcoma at 16, but also conquered Mount Everest and each of the planet’s other Seven Summits — the tallest peak on each continent — with one lung.
Which brings us to the question: “In order to achieve all you have, did you retrain your approach to breathing?”
Swarner said his respiratory system has reacted to his right lung’s lack of oxygen transfer by expanding the left side of his rib cage. It’s a manifestation, Swarner believes, from all of his mindful deep breaths throughout the years, one inhale and one exhale at a time. Swarner said his consistent utilization of his diaphragm to pull in oxygen is “a representation of repetition” — one of his favorite sayings.
“Over time, that’s who you become,” he said.
Swarner said this respiratory modification is one reason he’s able to achieve things like completing the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
But the other, more important variable?
“Training myself how to use my brain to believe in myself,” Swarner said.
It’s that process of learning how to be ready to overcome that is at the heart of Swarner’s life and motivational work. Swarner will speak about his journey and the guidelines that have helped him overcome at the virtual Longevity Project event at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Swarner will talk about many elements of overcoming, including his new Summit Challenge, which he cultivated during pandemic downtime. It’s a series of intentional, individual challenges guided by Swarner and designed to reprogram your mind to overcome obstacles by using your personal core values. Some of Swarner’s values, which he said came from his mother and father, are acceptance, freedom, fitness, faith, family, excellence, personal growth, trustworthiness, uniqueness, wealth, wisdom, health and happiness.
“People who are depressed are living in the past,” Swarner said. “People who are anxious are living in the future. And people who are nervous and scared — which happens to me, too — it usually happens when I let my brain go wild. And I ask myself a question that’s, literally, two words: ‘What if?’”
Swarner catches himself whenever he treads into “what if” mental space — whether that’s while trekking to the North or South poles or while at home thinking through what’s safe to do during COVID-19.
The values Swarner lives by are summed up by shrewd, sensible sayings that help channel his psyche. One is to “visualize victory.” He did so as a child when he closed his eyes and pretended he was inside his body killing cancer cells.
Another is training your psyche to understand its triggers. To Swarner, you can’t blame triggers because they didn’t make you feel a certain way — how you reacted to those triggers did.
So if social media is a trigger for someone, he recommends not watching hot-button videos while waking up and before falling asleep. Rather, to bookend each of his days, Swarner Googles “inspirational videos.” It’s a conscious decision to manifest a personal sense of gratefulness.
“Nothing makes you feel a certain way except for you,” Swarner said. “And the instant you give someone else power over your own emotions, you lose who you are.”
Taking after Terry
For a guy who once wanted to be a psychologist for cancer patients, Swarner has become more than that. He’s a mentor for the masses.
But he wasn’t always that way. At 13, he was a boy weeping on the floor of his family’s shower. Bald from head to toe due to cancer treatments, Swarner pulled chunks of hair out of the drain and asked himself, “Why would I give up and die? Why wouldn’t I fight?”
He’s channeled that courage ever since, now as a member of a Facebook group dubbed “One Lungers Unite.” It’s a digital community where people with limited respiratory function interact.
Swarner said the group brings him back to his first days as a boy recovering in the hospital. Back then, his first goal was to crawl from his bed the 8 feet to the bathroom. Eventually, the positive spirit led him to the top of the world on Everest.
Everest’s summit at 29,029 feet above sea level was about as far away as Swarner could imagine his life would take him 33 years ago when he was told he had 14 days to live. His rock bottom was opening his eyes in his hospital bed to realize he was being read his last rites only to inform his parents, “I’m not dead yet.”
Some of the first steps back from near death came in his parents’ living room, where Swarner limped, imitating his childhood hero, Terry Fox. Terry Fox wasn’t a celebrity. But he surely was a man who lived like Swarner, even if he died too early at 22.
In 1980, Fox was an athletic activist who ran across Canada with a limp due to an amputated right leg stemming from osteosarcoma. His quest was to gather $1 from every Canadian for cancer research. And he’d do it one step at a time, his prosthetic clicking in a runner’s rhythm each time his dying body propelled his right leg forward.
“He made it to Thunder Bay, (Ontario) and ended up getting a reoccurrence and passing away,” Swarner said. “He was a huge Canadian hero.”
Superman is the other childhood idol Swarner said gave him the spirit to survive.
Swarner collected Superman comics as a kid, and he continues to appreciate the superhero’s essence while admiring the life of the actor who played Superman, Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in an equestrian accident.
“I saw him living an amazing life,” Swarner said.
And Swarner has done so, as well. Each day, he reaches for Reeve’s Superman standard. To this day, Swarner’s convinced he survived because of his psyche.
So he continues to prime that logical focus and calculated confidence that calibrates a healthy psyche.
Now, it’s your turn.
“More people need to realize we have a lot more control over our physical being than we think,” Swarner said.
The Longevity Project is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Summit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Vail Daily. Read more at aspentimes.com/longevity.