Completing the application was easy:
Over the age of 18? Check
Written essay? Check.
Adventurous spirit? Check.
Cancer survivor. Check. And check.
And with a click of a button, two-time cancer survivor and Western alum Garrison Garcia (’09) applied for the CancerClimber Association grant that would potentially send him to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Co-founded by two-time cancer survivor and elite mountaineer Sean Swarner, CancerClimber awards Adventure Support Grants among its efforts to promote hope and inspiration to cancer survivors and those touched by the disease. In 2011, the Boulder-based organization offered a first-time grant for a cancer survivor specifically to join Swarner in climbing Kilimanjaro. For Garcia, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I jumped at it,” recalled Garcia following up on a Facebook post to apply for the grant. “I think anyone with my mindset has thought about climbing Everest or climbing Denali. Kilimanjaro ranks right there with them. I knew immediately this was (for) me. I would love to do that.”
In addition to scaling many of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, Garcia’s “mindset” has led him to complete the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, Utah’s 100-mile White Rim and the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse.
For Garcia, the ”adventurous spirit” part had always been easy. The surviving cancer part was much more difficult.
Aches. Fatigue. Weakness. The symptoms of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia aren’t always obvious. But when they sap the energy of an adventurous eight-year old, parents take notice. The Garcia family noticed quickly.
“We spent weekends traveling to hospitals and specialists in surrounding towns,” Garcia wrote in his Cancer Climber essay. “My parents simply could not stand to see their son suffering and demanded second, third, fourth and fifth opinions regarding my health. The sixth opinion: “Your son has cancer.’”
Three grueling years of chemotherapy followed. And then, remission.
“Finally, I had a second chance to be a kid,” said Garcia. “I made a promise to myself: never miss a day to play with your friends, ride your bike or have fun.”
Being a kid is easy. Defeating cancer never is.
At age 14, just before entering high school, Garcia could not ignore the ominous signs.
“I didn’t feel like myself,” said Garcia. “I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do anymore, I lacked my typical energy.”
The cancer had recurred, and the confusion and inconvenience Garcia felt as an eight-year old during his first bout with the disease gave way to a more frightening realization as a teenager. He could die.
"I had no other choice,” said Garcia. “I had to be strong. I wasn’t ready to quit. I went through high school refusing to let cancer become me and forced myself to rise to the occasion."
After three more years of chemotherapy and experimental treatments, he was granted a clean bill of health in 2004.
Quitting is easy. For Garcia, it just wasn’t an option.
“Going through cancer and treatment is not something you do as an individual,” said Garcia. “Obviously it takes family as well as friends. I was able to go through it in this wonderfully supportive community. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I decided to attend Western – because this community has been so good to me and has been so helpful and supportive through my battle. I really found that sense of community on campus. They’ve given me support and a feeling of consecutiveness. You can’t get through something like cancer without it.”
The application for the CancerClimber grant required an essay describing the applicant’s journey surviving cancer and how the Kilimanjaro expedition would be the opportunity of a lifetime. Told in compelling flashbacks, Garcia’s essay compared his own battle with cancer to his preparations for a third attempt at the Grand Traverse, Colorado’s 40-mile backcountry ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen. Among the themes: “Don’t stop. Don’t quit. I can do this.”
“Garrison's essay was actually the last one we received and I knew immediately that there was something very special about his story,” said CancerClimber ‘s Regan Eaton. “While reading his essay I really felt moved by his passion for life and his determination to beat cancer and also his determination to grab every opportunity he receives in this life. I believe he has a true passion for living and sees life and all experiences good or bad as a gift.”
The deadline for submissions past. So did the anticipated date for the announcement of the grant recipient. Garcia remained optimistically hopeful. Not that it mattered. He was already a winner.
But waiting is never easy.
"Choosing Garrison as the recipient of the 2012 Kilimanjaro Adventure Support Grant was an absolutely perfect match for us,” said CancerClimber’s Eaton. “We feel that he possesses determination, hope and a positive attitude that speaks directly to the CancerClimber Mission. We are thrilled to offer this amazing opportunity to a young man who clearly makes every day count."
Garcia beamed as he re-lived the moment.
“I got an email from Sean ( Swarner) that said ‘What’s your schedule look like for the end of July?’ I didn’t even flip out at that point. I just read it ten times trying to get it to sink in. Then I just couldn’t contain myself. I walked around campus hooting and hollering. I was just beside myself.”
As the recipient of the grant, Garcia will take a break from his position as an enrollment counselor in Western’s Office of Admissions to join Swarner, July 14-29 for a five-to-six-day trek up Kilimanjaro and a five day safari.
“I’m incredibly excited to be on the mountain with a fellow survivor and the opportunity to stand at the summit with someone who’s been through so much is going to be a great honor,” said Swarner, who has climbed each of the Seven Summits. “We’re hoping to show to everyone that with the right attitude, a big heart, incredible determination, and with the support of everyone touched by cancer carrying us along the way, anything’s possible.”
With news of his selection, Garcia consulted Western Associate Professor of Exercise and Sport Science Scott Drum and intensified his training in preparation for scaling the 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro. But a grueling regime of high-altitude workouts could not dampen his enthusiasm for the ultimate prize and its significance.
"I’m incredibly excited,” said Garcia. “To be able to immerse myself in different opportunities and see what I can do. But more importantly to the mission of the CancerClimber organization, I just want to provide some sort of hope and inspiration to other survivors and those touched by cancer. It does get better.”
For Garica. It doesn’t get much better than this.
“Garrison is a living breathing example of hope. His character and determination to live life to the fullest is what cemented him as the clear winner of the Kilimanjaro grant.
An adventurous spirit living life to the fullest: For Garrison Garcia nothing could be easier.