I first met John Ellison at the Chamonix Mountain Festival as both of us were giving a helping hand to the brands setting up their (somewhat complex) stands. We chatted away in the morning sun with me being none-the-wiser to who this happy go lucky and friendly man was. As we carried on chatting over a coffee he mentioned Climbers Agains Cancer and it all suddenly fell into place. Hints at his history, experiences, and, more recently, amazing stories all clicked and I realised who I had been chatting with for the last half hour.
John Ellison founded Climbers Against Cancer in 2013 and it has created a huge impact in our small climbing world with rockstar climbers through to every day walkers sharing their photos of the brightly coloured t-shirts in amazing locations. The work John has done is remarkable, even more so when he is battling terminal cancer himself. This is why I have chosen to support, along with Wide Open Vistas, CAC on my upcoming Run Annapurna challenge.
John has very kindly offered some of his time to answer my questions and share the story of CAC. To show your support, and look damn cool at the same time, you can buy t-shirts, hoodies, and even boxers here.
Can you tell everyone a bit about yourself and your story?
The story began back in October 2011, Thursday 6th to be exact. I remember it well. I was in a meeting when I felt a strange pain in my right leg. Nothing unusual there, I agree, but this pain was different, coming from deep within the bone and unlike anything I had come across before. It wasn’t extreme in any way, just unusual. The following morning after a rather unsettled night I awoke to find the pain still persisting and, if anything, growing. Something was definitely wrong so I made my way over to see my doctor. A friend and a keen sportsman, he was the perfect person to see as he knew me well. Following a lengthy examination he too was puzzled and couldn’t point to any reason for this pain. The best option, he decided, was to take some blood samples to get to the bottom of this.
My next contact with him came just 3 days later when on Monday morning he called to explain something wasn’t right, one of the blood counts was extremely high and I would need to go for a biopsy! I could tell in his voice he was worried and the word ʻbiopsyʼ itself had me thinking.
Even at this early stage I knew things ere serious and it was the first time the thought ‘cancer’ came to mind. Following 3 weeks of very intensive and intrusive examinations I was finally called to a meeting with the urologist for the breakdown of the results. Friday the 28th October, a day that will live with me forever and a very black day to say the least. Just 3 weeks after the first sign of a pain and I was to be told the news I guess we never think we will hear and the words we all dread. Like being hit with a sledgehammer is the only way I can describe the feeling when the nurse said “sorry to tell you this John but the results are not good and you have CANCER”. If that was difficult to absorb then worse was to come! “I am also sorry to have to tell you that it is a very aggressive type and to add to that you also have a secondary cancer.” Wow, even though I had already prepared myself for the worst it still took me by surprise and was quite a shock. Then she hit me with the sledgehammer one more time! “Unfortunately there is no cure.” Amazing, in just 3 weeks I had gone from being extremely healthy, or so I thought, to being told I was in fact DYING.
What is Climbers Against Cancer and what is it’s mission?
The goals of Climbers Against Cancer are not only to raise funds to help fight cancer by supporting research but also, just as important, to raise awareness of the disease and highlight the problems that not only the cancer sufferers go through, but also their families and friends.
The idea behind the T-shirt was to design a garment that not only looked smart and was comfortable to wear, but that also carried a very strong message. CAC stands out very well and pushes people to ask the question “why CAC”? Explaining the reasons straight away opens up a conversation that in turn increases overall awareness.
What inspires you to keep pushing and driving forward with this when the times are tough?
I have to admit that although I knew climbers were a special group of people – and I know a lot of climbers around the world – I feel extremely honoured and humbled by the response so far. I immediately felt a lot of strength in all the climbers who offered their support and I feel proud that everyone has reacted in this way. To me this echoes my first feelings back in September in Paris. It goes a long way to show just how orientated climbing is to individuals and their families.
I guess the biggest hurdle was finding the strength to push CAC forward whilst dealing with the stresses and strains that terminal cancer brings to your door. I am determined to keep going as long as I can and to put Climbers Against Cancer in a position that, if the worst scenario comes to fruition, it will carry on going long after I have left the building, or so to speak! As for the best moment, well that is a difficult one as I treat everyone the same and see us all as equals. I have met some fantastic climbers along the way and some huge stars in our sport but I am just as excited when I read a letter of support from a young climber I hardly know or see a climber smiling away as they put their CAC t-shirt on for the first time. Given my predicament it may seem a strange thing to say, but I am truly happy.
Do you have a moment that encapsulates what you are trying to achieve and makes you keep going?
There have been many special moments along the journey that is Climbers Against Cancer and to select one above all others would be truly difficult. If I really had to choose it would probably be the moment we took the largest collective CAC photo to date and that was at the World Youth Championships at the Boulders Gym in Canada. To have over 150 young climbers from all corners of the globe on stage along with myself and the organisers was a real special moment and has pride of place on the wall of the new office.
Is there anything you would do differently?
I have always thought that one should never live with regret so I would have to say no. If I have made mistakes along the way then I like to think I have learnt from them so on that basis I wouldn’t have changed anything.
How are you seeing the money raised and donated by CAC being used?
- The organisation has, as a primary purpose, cancer research (as opposed to patient care or treatment)
- The organisation has administrative costs less than 15%
- The organisation supports research for a diversity of cancer types
- The organisation is internationally regarded and active as supported by evidence of collaborations, published research studies, and funding
- The organisationis active across the country/countries in which they operate
- The organisation operates in a country/countries that has not been over-represented in prior grants (e.g. fulfils CAC’s mission to distribute grants worldwide)
The global reach of this project is incredible, how does that make you feel?
It goes without saying that I am very proud of what I have started but that said it only works because of everyones help and support so the thanks has to go out to everyone. I once used the analogy that “I am just the Dj and you guys are filling the dance floor” and the two work well in unison to create a very memorable evening.
What is your vision for the future of CAC?
It’s amazing when I think back to the official launch of the charity on January 23rd 2013 and realise how much has happened in such a short period of time and how far the charity has reached. Each day when looking at the destinations of orders it is fantastic to see the new locations where the shirts are heading. I still feel despite the huge support that we have only scratched the surface and we need to keep working hard to increase awareness of the campaign. In time it would be nice to have made a donation in every country possible and to reach areas many charities haven’t. Metaphorically speaking “In life we are all climbers” so who knows how far we can take this campaign especially if endorsed by people from many other sporting disciplines.
How can people get involved with CAC?
All the CAC products including t-shirts, hoodies, underwear and climbing holds are available from the website www.climbersagainstcancer.org and are dispatched on a regular basis. Anyone wishing to make a direct donation can do so by using the orange donate button and those wishing to arrange fundraising events please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s important that everyone knows that all proceeds from the sale of garments etc goes towards various global cancer research facilities and none of the funds raised are used for expenses, administration etc with all volunteers including myself giving their time for free.
Anything you would like to add
I would like to pass on my love and thanks to everyone who has supported both myself and Climbers Against Cancer over the past couple of years. Without you all I doubt I could have done coped with the daily pressures that cancer throws at you. Thank you, John x