Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to help fight cancer

Climbers of all skill levels climbed Africa's tallest mountain last year as a part of an exhibition led by Radiating Hope, a non-profit with a mission to bring radiation machines to underserved countries


33-year old Ashley Cogswell had never hiked a mountain before she decided to trek 19,340 feet up into the clouds of Mt. Kilimanjaro. But she wasn’t climbing just for fun; she was climbing with a purpose—to help raise funds to bring cancer care to developing countries. Cogswell and other climbers from all skill levels climbed Africa’s tallest mountain in 2016 as a part of an exhibition led by Radiating Hope, a non-profit with a mission to bring radiation machines to underserved countries.

"I’ll climb a mountain every year if that's what it takes to bring the awareness to what they're doing, but also to the people around the world that are suffering without any means to treatment," Cogswell, who works as a software sales direct for Elekta, a company that manufactures radiation therapy equipment and software, told Fox News.

In the U.S., there is roughly one radiation machine for every 100 to 200,000 people, but in the African nation of Senegal they have one machine for 13 million people.

"Through Radiating Hope people are able to donate machinery to us, but after we get that machinery we want to refurbish and then ship it to these countries, so climbing became our platform for fund raising," Dr. Brandon Fisher, a radiation oncologist and Radiating Hope Co-founder told Fox News.

Every five to 10 years hospitals typically refurbish or buy new radiation machines to stay competitive as cancer facilities. So instead of scrapping them for parts or throwing them in the trash, hospitals can donate their older machines to Fisher and his Radiating Hope team.

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Through donations and climbing excursions, Radiating Hope has successfully placed radiation machines in 15 different countries, like Senegal, Honduras and Nepal.

"When you walk the streets of Senegal they'll say 'Oh why are you here?' and we'll say 'We're here to treat cancer' and they'll be like 'Treat cancer? You can’t treat cancer, that's only a death sentence,'" Fisher said.

If you raise at least $12,000, Radiating Hope will cover the cost of the trip, excluding airfare and some equipment, however you’re not required to raise a certain amount of money as participants can pay for the trip out of pocket.

Through a Go Fund Me page and a local fundraiser, Cogswell surpassed her fundraising goal and raised about $16,000.

“I was astonished, just absolutely surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of support I received," Cogswell said.

Although days were physically challenging and mentally difficult, Cogswell said she leaned on her fellow climbers to get her through the six-day journey.

"You’re feeling sick, you have headaches, you’re nauseous, [and] you’re having bathroom problems. I mean there's just so many things that instantly bond you with everyone there because everyone is there to lift each other up and help you accomplish this task," she said.

Cogswell and her group traveled up the slopes of Kilimanjaro, hiking 6-to-8 hours a day, only stopping for meals and camping at night. On summit day, they woke up in the middle of the night to hike another 8-to-9 hours after sleeping for only a couple of hours. But when she reached the top, her efforts were all worth it, she said.

"When my guide tapped me and kind of rubbed my back and said 'Sister you made it'…I was just so overwhelmed I started crying,” Cogswell said. “It was a feeling of joy, of accomplishment, also relief that I can’t believe I did this."

In April 2017, Cogswell will join Radiating Hope to climb to the base of Mt. Everest.  For people who can’t make the trip, you can also donate $20 for a Prayer Flag that gets taken on the climb and left on top of the summit. Each colorful prayer flag can be dedicated to a cancer patient or survivor.

“We’re taking over 2,000 prayer flags that have been dedicated over the last 5 years in honor of cancer patients locally in the United States to the base camp of Mt. Everest where we’ll leave them to slowly disintegrate over time,” Fisher said. “Tibetan’s believe if you hang them in the mountain high winds those winds will beat at them and the little threads [that] start to unravel from these flags are supposed to be a representation of strength, hope and wellbeing.”

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