Climbers Conquer Kilimanjaro in Their Fight Against Cancer

It was 18 years ago that Brian Berryman saw his mother, Mary Frances Berryman, die from multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer.

That traumatic life experience helped drive him to become an oncologist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

“She died before a lot of newer therapies were available,” Berryman told NBCDFW.com. “So that fuels me both personally and professionally.”

Berryman’s efforts to help his patients fight the cruel disease recently motivated him to tackle another feat: Reaching the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the African continent’s tallest free-standing mountain at 19,341 feet.

Berryman didn’t do it alone. He and 14 others, a group that includes four patients, formed 2016 Mt. Kilimanjaro Trek – Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma. Together they raised $235,333 for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, for research and awareness.

Multiple myeloma is the second-most common type of blood cancer and has one of the lowest five-year survival rates of all cancers, Berryman recently wrote on the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation’s website.

Although there isn’t yet a cure, Berryman credited the MMRF with the creation of seven new treatments that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The drugs have tripled the lifespan of multiple myeloma patients, Berryman said.

The MMRF is funding 21 more treatments in various phases of development, giving thousands of patients new hope, Berryman said.

“We couldn’t save my momma’s life (in 1997) but we are saving lives every day,” Berryman wrote, “and giving that precious gift of life and hope.”

The climbers called themselves “Team Living Proof” because they are living proof that the MMRF and its partners are “curing cancer now.” The team included Berryman’s friend and patient, Dr. Charles Wakefield, a 12-year multiple myeloma survivor.

“We’d like to turn this into a manageable, curable disease that you can live with,” Wakefield told NBCDFW.com. “It’s an achievement for me, it’s an achievement to be part of a team, but the bigger picture is we’re doing a lot for multiple myeloma.”

They took nine days to ascend Uhuru Peak, a relatively fast time in light of some of their health conditions. They endured a combined 1.5 inches of rain with a mean temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit and average winds of 8 mph.

Berryman told NBCDFW.com that the group members did plenty of cardio exercise, running, biking and hiking to prepare for the climb. Improving their endurance was critical to prepare for the decreasing air pressure, which made it harder to breathe in oxygen, as they climbed higher in altitude. To prevent altitude sickness, it was also important to ascend slowly, giving their bodies time to adjust to the changing air pressure.

Here’s a look at the men and women who made up Team Living Proof, with some excerpts of their remarks taken from their website:

Stan Wagner, 61, Brooklyn, NY, patient: Diagnosed in the spring of 2012, he’s been in remission for nearly two years. He said cancer has pushed him to do things he’d never thought of doing, including climbing one of the world’s tallest mountains. “Cancer sucks,” Wagner wrote on the team’s website, “but it’s definitely not going to stop me.”

Bob Dickey, 48, Shell Beach, Calif., patient: Dickey had high praise for the MMRF, which spends 90 percent of its revenue directly on research. “This is not just some feel good organization that sends out fliers to cancer awareness,” Dickey wrote. “I have, and am, personally taking drugs which they funded the research on. And now… it’s payback time.”

Jeff Goad, 55, Chicago, patient: Goad said he was diagnosed five years ago after suffering what he thought was a back injury while playing softball. He had been in remission until a month ago when he developed a lesion in his hip. His wife, Ramona, made the climb with him. “This climb of Kilimanjaro with my wife and the rest of this terrific team is truly climbing for my life,” he wrote, “and for the lives of every other MM patient.”

Jamie Slater, 40, Brooklyn, NY, founder of Team Living Proof: Slater is a co-worker of Wagner and has lost many friends and loved ones to various forms of cancer. She had long wanted to climb Kilimanjaro and started learning from Wagner about multiple myeloma. Wagner put her in touch with the foundation, and she helped found the team. “I wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro but didn’t want to do it for me,” she wrote, “I wanted to do it for a reason much bigger than me.”

Alicia O’Neill, 56, Santa Barbara, Calif. and Stamford, Conn.: O’Neill works in communications for the foundation. She has run 10 marathons, several of them alongside MM patients, and she said she had dreamed of climbing Kilimanjaro for 30 years. “I can’t imagine anything more amazing than taking on this incredible feat with others who are benefitting from the work that we are doing at the MMRF,” she wrote.

Marty Murphy, 47, Raleigh, N.C.: Murphy is director for patient education of CURE Media Group, whose CURE magazine has 1 million readers and educates people about all types of cancer. “These cancer patients have overcome financial, emotional and physical challenges during their cancer journeys,” he wrote, “and now, with the support of their family and friends, are battling yet another obstacle by taking on this feat.”

Colleen Smithson, 27, St. Louis: Smithson’s mother died from MM in October 2014. After going into remission for a year, the cancer re-emerged in her lungs, ultimately shutting them down. Smithson said she wanted to take part in the climb to raise money for the MMRF “so that other patients might have the opportunity my mom didn’t have: a cure.”

Julie Ryan, 44, Camas, Wash.: Ryan’s mother was diagnosed with MM in 2002 but is doing well. “Keeping up the progress of fighting this disease is my sole motivation for this climb,” Ryan wrote. Joining her on the climb was her twin sister, Jana.

Jana Cannon, 44, Camarillo, Calif.: Cannon has run numerous 5K’s, 10K’s and half-marathons as part of the MMRF power team, but she never dreamed she would be asked to climb Kilimanjaro for the foundation, she wrote. Cannon said she was “quite nervous” about the climb but “to do this for such a great cause, and to do it with my twin sister, Julie, will truly be an experience of a lifetime.”

Mark “Splinter” Harder, 50, Chicago: Harder was the trip’s documentarian, responsible for filming and capturing images of the climb. He wrote that he has had many loved ones suffer different types of cancer, including his mother, sister, grandparents and aunts. He said this project has taught him that there is room in today’s world, with advances in drugs and treatment, for the term, cancer “survivor.” “People get diagnosed, they get treated and they are free to live life having survived that bout with cancer,” Harder wrote.

Jeff Levine, 37, Rockville Centre, NY: Although he had no direct connection to anyone with MM, Levine said he has long admired cancer survivors and those who work to develop new treatments and cures. He said he was excited to be climbing his first mountain and making his first trip to Africa.

Ryan Cohlhepp, 39, Westborough, Mass.: As vice president of U.S. oncology marketing at Takeda, a pharmaceutical maker that focuses on developing new MM drugs, Cohlhepp said he was eager to join the project. “Taking one step at a time, I am convinced that we are getting closer to the summit, and that means a lot to me as a person who has worked in myeloma for several years.”

Ramona Biliunas, 50, Chicago: The wife of Jeff Goad, Biliunas said the couple have always shared a love of the outdoors. Last year they hiked the Grand Canyon in intense heat. “We will tackle Mt. Kilimanjaro with the same thoughtful planning and physical preparation as we both fulfill lifelong dreams of that very special place,” she wrote. “See you at the top!”

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