New Heights

There are many ways to pay tribute to those who have valiantly fought cancer—fundraising galas, 5K runs, wearing a pink ribbon.

Then there is The Climb.

Dr. Robert Masson made it in February— a trek called Survivor Summit that didn’t involve scaling a wall or ascending an Appalachian mountain. Rather, the Orlando neurosurgeon joined 15 other hikers in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the African peak that, at 19,341 feet, is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. The group included cancer survivors as well as those, like Masson, whose families have been touched by the disease.

“My dad died last year of prostate cancer,’’ says Masson, founder of the NeuroSpine Institute. “My sister is a 20-year cancer survivor. I turned 50 in October and I had my own spinal cord artificial disc surgery in May, so it was also important for me to demonstrate my own recovery. I needed to do this.’’

Through pledges, Masson and the others raised $180,000 for an organization that Masson strongly supports: Livestrong, whose stated mission is to inspire and empower those affected by cancer. The hikers included former WESH-Channel 2 anchor Wendy Chioji, a cancer survivor, as well as Marc Middleton, formerly of WESH and now CEO of Growing Bolder, a local media company focusing on the 50-plus age group.

The metaphor for the effort was unmistakable—summoning the physical and mental strength to conquer a huge challenge. In this case it was a mountain that features multiple climate zones.

“We began at 90 degrees in rainforest and we finished below zero in deep, heavy glacier snow,’’ Masson says of the six days it took to get to the summit. “So we had everything in between.’’

Through it all, bonds were formed. As Middleton noted on his blog for Huffington Post: “We would succeed or fail as one. We were in this together, and together we would deliver our message that anything is possible. … We became a team of givers—carrying one another’s load when necessary, sharing food and supplies, offering encouragement and literally catching one another when we stumbled.’’

And stories were told. “There were so many, and we had so much time to talk about the people we were representing,’’ Masson says. “We decided on day one that if any of us didn’t make it, we were really letting down a lot of people back home. So we bobbed and weaved and divided and conquered and figured out a way for all 16 to get to the top.

“I think there were four or five of us whose sole responsibility for the last 3,000 feet was to make sure that people didn’t fall down the mountain because they were getting hypoxia [oxygen deprivation because of high altitude] and having problems with balance. It was one half-step after another.’’

But reach the summit they did. And standing there, nearly on top of the world, Masson had a moment he’ll always remember.

“I really hadn’t dealt with my father’s death at all. So when I spread his ashes out off the top of the summit, that was really the first time I even let my guard down to think about it or acknowledge his death. So it was very emotional.’’ On the descent, he was able to call his sister Calley, who was crying tears of joy.

Masson is looking forward to another fundraising “mountain experience’’ next year, although he’s not sure where. But his philosophy at the half-century mark is a solid one.

“I think as we get older we become safer and more cautious and less active,’’ he says. The Kilimanjaro experience “was life-affirming and life-changing. It just allowed me to prove that I’m still pushing and still trying and taking myself forward.’’

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