By Steve Blanchard - December 17, 2019
In the early morning hours of Nov. 1, Dr. Kendra Sweet, saw the world from a perspective few of us will ever experience – standing on the summit of the largest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro.
“It was beautiful,” the Moffitt Cancer Center hematologist said. “It was inspiring knowing that I was standing on top of [Mount Kilimanjaro]. But it was also zero degrees and we were fighting 60 mile-per-hour winds. So we only stayed up there for a short time. But, I did it!”
The climb was all part of the International Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) Foundation’s Climb for a Cure event, which raises money for international programs to treat and cure CML around the globe.
The disease, a slow-growing form of leukemia, is manageable in the United States and other advanced countries but still deadly in some remote parts of the world. Funds raised by the foundation help provide medicine and equipment where it is needed the most.
Sweet and her fellow adventurers – 28 in all, including two CML patients – raised $280,000 for the organization by participating in the climb. There were no injuries but one climber battled altitude sickness and couldn’t make the final, early morning climb to the summit.
Sweet said she had her own moments when she doubted if she could complete the climb. Low oxygen levels gave her shortness of breath. (In videos she made documenting her journey, she laughs at her very obvious labored breathing.) And the harsh weather conditions made her consider turning around at one point.
“One of our guides helped convince me to keep climbing by saying, ‘You are strong like Simba,’” Sweet recalls. “That helped, but what really pushed me was knowing that I couldn’t go home and tell my kids that I voluntarily turned around and missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Besides, I had patients and colleagues counting on me. I knew I couldn’t disappoint them!”
No Contact with Home
Remarkably, Sweet made the ascent only eight months after giving birth to her second child.
“The moment this trip was announced, I knew I had to be a part of it,” she said. “But I was pregnant at the time and had to convince my husband I could do this.
“Planning forced me to get back in shape after I had my son and stay motivated to do something only a handful of people have done, all while raising money for clinics around the globe that really need the help.”
Sweet trained for the trek by hiking in the American Southwest, but the ascent to the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, was steeper than she anticipated.
“There were no switchbacks,” she said. “It was just a six-day straight climb up the Rongai Route, which is on the north side of the mountain near Kenya.”
But the emotional toll of being separated from her family was just as real. The two-week trip took Sweet away from her husband, their infant son and 5-year-old daughter. There was no direct way for her to update her family or colleagues on her progress.
“There was no telephone or FaceTime with the kids,” she said. “Before I left I told my daughter that I was going to climb the mountain pictured in the opening scene of Disney’s The Lion King. She asked if I was going to the ‘Circle of Life.’
“We put a calendar on the fridge that had tents and mountains on it to help her count down the days until I came back. It helped her cope with the time.”
Her fellow Moffitt clinicians came up with their own means of coping. They hung a “Where In The World Is Kendra?” poster on the wall of the clinic and documented her expected daily progress.
“It really meant a lot and people really cared about what I was doing,” she said. “Before I left I heard, ‘Please don’t fall off any cliffs!’ It sounds funny, but holy cow, there were a lot of cliffs! When I made it back I got a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re alive!’ comments.”
A Newfound Confidence
Sweet said the climb helped her discover a confidence unlike anything she’s experienced.
“At the risk of sounding crazy, what that experience really taught me is that I can do anything I want and anything that is important enough to me,” Sweet said. “In the end, whatever pain comes from the experience is completely worth it when the goal was so important.”
She compared the climb to the journey her cancer patients take. Both journeys, she said, appear daunting at the beginning, with plenty of bumps along the way that can make you feel like you can’t survive much more.
“A diagnosis of CML is disruptive and uncomfortable,” Sweet said. “But I tell my patients that they will eventually feel OK and get to return to their lives. I tell them that I’ll help you get there but you have to tell me if there is a problem.”
Sweet said it can take a CML patient about six months to feel healthy after the initial diagnosis, citing her two fellow climbers who have CML .
“You can return to a healthy life and they are proof of that,” Sweet said. “CML is treatable if you have access to the proper health care. And providing that is what this climb was all about.”