Ascending to New Heights

John sits at the base of a large tree

The outdoors always was a place of comfort for John Waller.  For 17 years, he shared his love for outdoor adventures by volunteering with a group that helps survivors of medical and traumatic challenges reach new athletic goals.​

“I just kept coming back again and again, because these kinds of projects kind of hit all the sweet spots for me,” he says. “It was like stories of beautiful human overcoming.”

But now the roles have been reversed.

“It wasn’t the path I was expecting,” he says. “But I now find myself walking in their shoes…shattered, rebuilding, and wondering what I’m capable of.”

THE DIAGNOSIS

During the summer of 2020, John was losing weight that he couldn’t explain. There were night sweats, a nagging abdominal pain, and at times, what looked like traces of blood in his stool.

Hindsight says to pay attention to the warning signs, but life is complex and presents each of us with hundreds, if not thousands, of daily thoughts to process, leaving plenty of room for error and oversight.

“I chose to ignore them,” John says. “I was 45-years-old, fit, active, and overall, feeling great.”

When John eventually saw a doctor that fall, an ultrasound of his abdomen revealed unexplained masses in the area and led to additional blood tests. Three weeks later, John received the worst news of his life. He was diagnosed with Stage IV rectal cancer, with widespread metastatic tumors in his lymph nodes and liver.

“The severity of my disease was a total surprise,” he said. “The warning signs that I had and that I now know about just didn’t …They didn’t align with the severity of my disease. Cancer is insidious that way.”

THE TREATMENT/SUPPORT SYSTEM

Prior to the diagnosis, uncertainty was already surrounding John as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact his day-to-day life. Travels, adventures – you name it – were all on hold for the time being.

The unexpected element of an advanced rectal cancer diagnosis completely turned his world upside down and with an imminent, aggressive six-month chemotherapy treatment on the horizon, it was simply too much for one person to shoulder alone.

“When I was first diagnosed, I felt really overwhelmed in that first 24 to 48 hours where I received both the diagnosis and what my treatment plan was going to be, which was like, ‘holy s***,’” he says.

“I thought to myself, I can’t do this on my own. There’s no way. So, what do I need? And I made a list of what were my needs going to be and put them into buckets. And then I thought to myself, who the perfect person in my life was that I knew and trusted and I thought might be excited to take on the role to fill that job.”

Over the next few days, John went to work identifying people in his life that he would lean on and be a constant for him as he navigated these uncharted waters. Texts were sent. Phone calls were made. The support system was starting to take shape.

“I invited in this group of people to be my core, my core support system. There were seven people that represented different aspects of what my care was going to be, the logistics and nutrition, and my emotional health and my base camp managers, the people that I was living with, and my therapist,” he says.

“Immediately, I felt an immense sense of relief to know that I was held by this … It was the dream team. It was like this was the group of people that could accomplish anything, honestly, and they happened to be rallying around me to support me in what I was about to go through. It was just such a weight off my shoulders.”

John watches the sunset show over Glacier National Park with some of the most special people in his life
John watches the sunset show over Glacier National Park with some of the most special people in his life (via @uncage_the_soul on Instagram)

Aided by a remarkable support system that coalesced around him, John leaned into the grueling and consuming work of healing from cancer, the chemotherapy, radiation, and surgical treatments he would receive over the following year.

“I cannot articulate in words the extraordinary ecosystem of support and love that has surrounded and kept me going … seeing in my potential, resilience, and purpose that I at times could not see in myself,” John says.

THE PUMP

After six months of treatment, John was referred to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute with the intent of installing an HAI (Hepatic Arterial Infusion) pump inside his abdomen and connecting it directly to the hepatic artery. The pump allows doctors to deliver powerful doses of chemotherapy uninterrupted and straight to the liver.

The medication circulates inside the liver, killing cancer cells. The liver breaks down 95% of the medication, which means fewer side effects. Once the pump has been placed, most patients aren’t aware of it.

Unfortunately for John, his cancer markers were still too high and needed to be neutralized before an HAI pump could be considered effective enough to install. John would need to undergo an additional five months of chemotherapy before the pump could be installed.

In November of 2021, John was officially transitioned over to OHSU and successfully received the HAI pump implant, followed immediately by a week of radiation and six months of systemic chemotherapy.

Now he has to manage literal and figurative tethers. One is the HAI pump tied to his hepatic artery; the other is the maintenance the pump requires to operate properly. John’s pump must be serviced every two weeks or so, meaning the window in which he can be physically away from OHSU is relatively small.

“Now, I basically have a lifetime marriage with OHSU, because that’s how the HAI pump works, so for better or for worse, till death do us part,” he laughs.

“I’ve got to credit the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute for taking a chance on me with the HAI treatment. We’ve entered into a long-term, probably lifetime, marriage, and they’ve delivered on their end.”

According to John, his care team at OHSU primarily consists of Dr. Skye Mayo, who surgically implanted the HAI pump, along with his oncologists Dr. Emerson Chen and Jeffery Donovan, PA-C.

A runway of high-quality time is starting to actualize right in front of John’s eyes. While John describes the HAI treatment as maintenance, rather than curative, treatment, he’s grateful for the opportunity it’s provided to live his life on his terms, even while being on chemotherapy.

“It’s the first conclusive glimpse at how I might be able to manage this cancer with holistic, restorative treatments, and minimal toxic chemotherapy,” he says.

“My body feels strong, my mind is clear, I’m incredibly supported, and I might … just might, be able to cast my gaze ahead past the next footstep.”

THE HORIZON

What does that next footstep look like for John?

“I have an audacious goal just on the horizon. I aspire to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas at 23,000 ft., in pursuit of my adventurous dream, and to provide the opportunity for future survivors of medical and traumatic setbacks to live their own fearless goals through the Project Athena Foundation.” The foundation helps survivors of medical setbacks reach athletic goals.  It’s the group John volunteered with starting in 2005, providing pro-bono video and photography coverage of their events and adventures.

The idea to climb Aconcagua came from a friend who owns an expedition company. The first planned trip was canceled due to COVID-19 and the fact his body simply wasn’t in the necessary shape to make the twenty-day trek. As the season’s changed, so did John’s outlook on making this dream ascension a reality.

“By May of this year, I had a strong response to a grueling six months of chemotherapy, and I was able to transition into a maintenance phase with the HAI pump. Because I’m not noticing the effects of the chemotherapy, I was starting to exercise as well as I ever had,” he says.

“And here’s where the upward spiral starts to happen. I feel good, so I exercise more, and now I eat better and now I sleep better, and now that allows me to exercise more. So, it’s this upward feedback loop that happens. And I was like, ‘Wow, I might be able to actually pull that off!’”

Physically, John was on the path to achieving his goal. However, there was another hurdle lurking; one for which John had no training regimen – long-term commitment. For many cancer patients, the thought of planning for something exciting and enjoyable can be unnerving with an uncertain future. For John to ascend 23,000 feet into the Argentinian air, he would not only have to train harder than he’s ever had to train before but allow himself to become vulnerable to the unknown.

“I was looking at committing to something that was six months down the road. And for me in my world, where I’m at right now, that was further ahead than I’d ever been able to cast my gaze. I had been in survival mode for a year and a half where I couldn’t tell you what the next week was going to look like, and it made it really difficult, if not impossible, to plan things in my life that was more than one to two weeks ahead.”

John stands outdoors, facing a snowcapped peak
John gazes up at Aconcagua in October of 2004 (via @uncage_the_soul on Instagram)

But the allure of this journey to the top, setting and striving for an immensely challenging goal, and being an inspiration to others within the cancer community allowed him to embrace the excitement.

John describes the lowest of the lows as “spiraling alone in a deserted cave that seemed harrowing to crawl out of, discovering new physical and emotional lows. Life felt precarious.”

Putting his all into this climb would be like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

As a documentary filmmaker for over 15 years, John had a front-row seat as he watched other cancer patients overcome their own obstacles en route to experiencing once-in-a-lifetime physical and emotional accomplishments. It was now his turn.

“In the process of doing that work for myself, I want to enable other people to have similar experiences,” he says. “It’s like as I’m hacking through the jungle, making this happen, I’m leaving a path behind me that others can follow. And that’s really an important aspect of this climb for me, and that’s why I’m doing it as a fundraiser for the Project Athena Foundation so that future survivors can have the opportunities that I’m having right now.”

PREPARING FOR ACONCAGUA

Aconcagua is the first climb training ever required for John, let alone dedicating six months of blood, sweat, and tears, in order to summit. The climb itself is nothing short of challenging. At 23,000 feet, it represents the highest altitude that he has ever ascended. The weather can be unpredictable. And each climber is expected to carry up to 40 lbs of equipment over the duration of the 20-day climb.

If that didn’t seem like enough of a challenge, John’s abdominal surgery to implant the HAI pump adds in another layer of preparation for this journey.

“That was a big setback for my strength and conditioning,” John says. “I’ve now been doing a lot of work to rebuild my core, the foundation of my body. Everything else stops working well when your core isn’t at the strength it needs to be.”

Before John could get the wheels in motion for training, there were a couple of obstacles he had to clear that were out of his control.

Would the HAI pump operate effectively at an altitude of 23,000 feet?

Would he be able to be away from OHSU for a duration of twenty days?

Fortunately, the answer to both was a resounding ‘Yes!’

“Everybody at OHSU that I encountered came on board with this climb really fast and in a very supportive way,” John says. “It was, ‘Okay. Let’s figure out how to make this happen for you.’ It has been wonderful in terms of choreographing my treatment schedule and helping me get my body in a place physically where I can pull this off.”

His weekly training regimen is nothing short of relentless. Five-to-six days a week, John’s either working with his fitness coach, or training solo, going through sixty minutes of strength and conditioning – lunges, squats, kettlebells, throwing 50-pound sandbags, hikes, runs – with the intention of preparing the body and heart for high capacity, high-intensity work that comes with a twenty-day trek.

It’s truly remarkable what John has been able to accomplish. The mentality to find motivation within oneself. The vulnerability to commit to showing up every day when tomorrow is not guaranteed. The dedication to pushing your mind, body, and soul to the limits is inspiring beyond words.

“What drives me is just actually showing up on the first day. Everything else is icing on the cake,” he says.  “And if I can just make it to the start line of this opportunity, I’m going to be super psyched, because that represents a huge victory for me in terms of my dealing with cancer and all of the treatments.”

“It’s really extraordinary that I can be receiving a fairly intense amount of chemotherapy that’s targeted to my liver and still go out and do a 15-mile hike with a 30-pound pack. That’s pretty amazing. I can still carry a really heavy backpack with a waist strap, I can still run, I can throw a sandbag around, I can do pretty much everything that I’ve always done before.”

John trains by lifting sandbags during sunrise
John training for his upcoming climb of Aconcagua (via @uncage_the_soul on Instagram)

With the beginning of winter, finding the drive to show up to training becomes increasingly difficult when it’s 6:30 in the morning, pitch black outside, and the rain is pouring sideways.

“It’s miserable,” John says of the current conditions. “But I’m so committed not only to prepare for this climb, but I also recognize the bigger priorities, recognizing the importance of maintaining fitness in my body as a treatment for cancer. The wonderful thing about this is that everything that I’m doing to prepare for this climb of Aconcagua is exactly what I need to be doing anyway as it relates to having resilience and strength in my body as I move through cancer treatments.”

John has been vocal on social media about his intentions to climb Aconcagua and continues to keep his support system intact. Both of those elements have provided accountability and a desire to keep pushing forward, despite the diagnosis, the pump, and the inclement conditions.

To pay it forward, Project Athena is sponsoring his climb of Aconcagua with Embark Exploration Co. in January 2023. John will be using this endeavor to fundraise for future sponsored survivors who will someday connect with Project Athena in hopes of turning their own dreams into a reality. His own experience and connection with other cancer patients is a constant reminder that balance is fragile, health is delicate, and healing is an ongoing priority.

“I’m excited to take on the challenge and elevate the dreams of others in pursuit of this audacious goal,” he says.

“While the summit would certainly be a milestone, it represents a brief moment over a long journey that is the real achievement … navigating the physical and medical gauntlet from a stage IV cancer diagnosis to arriving at Aconcagua with the strength and endurance to the summit is the real mountain.

There is no winning or losing on this journey.”

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