Ian Toothill, 47, a personal trainer from London, has stage IV bowel cancer. Earlier this month, he reached the summit of Mt. Everest. Yep. THE Mt. Everest.
According to James Hodgson, a friend of Toothill’s, climbing the world’s tallest mountain is something that Toothill always intended to do. “Fitness is his thing,” explains Hodgson. “He’s spent time in the Antarctic, climbed mountains in the Alps, hiked across Iceland by himself. He’s an amazing guy.”
I would say so. At the beginning of chemo, I started doing a daily hike up a small-ish mountain in Northern California. I’d usually hike with my dog for an hour or two. By the sixth infusion, however, I could barely make it up a quarter of the way. By my lights, Toothill is a superman.
All the while he’s been making a climb that would be an accomplishment for a healthy person, Toothill has been raising money for MacMillan Cancer Support, a British charity. He’s been posting to his Facebook page and racking up GoFundMe donations to the tune of more than 37,000 pounds at this writing.
Toothill was diagnosed with Stage IV bowel cancer in 2015. By Christmastime, his cancer had disappeared. Alas, it returned the following spring and his doctors told him he had only months to live. Then, strangely, his disease stopped progressing, Hodgson says. So Toothill has made the most of his unexpected reprieve.
I can’t imagine climbing Mt. Everest. The book and movie, Into Thin Air, were scary enough for this cancer survivor. Yet there is something about hearing the words, “You’ve got cancer” that does goad many people into doing extraordinary things. Starting a charity, wearing costumes to chemo, completing an IronMan race, going on a trip, getting a divorce, becoming more religious, or less religious—cancer patients are doing all these things all the time.
“It’s a way of changing the narrative, asserting control,” explains Ellen Ormond, PhD, of the Center for Counseling and Cancer Support at the University of Pittsburgh. “People tend to do things that make sense given their pre-existing personality and coping style. Action-oriented people will want to do something. Athletic people will set themselves a physical challenge. People who’ve done charity work may start a non-profit.”
Having been a journalist for 25 years, my way of dealing with diagnosis was to turn my cancer into a “story.” I started a blog and made my cancer into a journalistic assignment. It gave me a way to put my cancer into the third person, to think about more than myself, to put my experience out there and get reactions and comfort from others. I think I might have gone crazy during treatment if I hadn’t started that blog.
What you do may be different, of course – and it doesn’t have to be something big and flashy. Even a small project can give you a sense of purpose and a feeling of control, which can make a big difference in how you go through cancer.