“Cancer forces us to re-order our priorities. It teaches us that life is a blessing and that we shouldn’t let a single moment go unlived.” That is the philosophy of Above and Beyond Cancer, a non-profit that organizes adventure-based programs for cancer survivors.
It is also what Corey McMordie ’02 has learned from his battle with cancer. And what he reaffirmed by trekking to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. He was chosen from a large group of applicants by the organization.
Corey’s encounter with cancer has encompassed more than 25 years and several dear family members. When he was just five years old, his grandfather was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The two were extremely close, and Corey spent long hours working on projects in his grandfather’s garage. The older man continued on with a bright smile and a fierce determination. But 10 years later, he passed away from a rare secondary cancer in his small intestine. “Although he is gone, I still carry his spirit with me, smiling through all the challenges life throws my way,” says Corey.
At Central, Corey majored in information systems management and later went on to work at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. But just as he was graduating in 2002, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a year of treatment before going into remission.
Her recovery was a great relief to the McMordie family. But three years later, Corey’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away within three months. It was a great loss.
While dealing with the grief from his father’s death, Corey began experiencing the first symptoms of what would eventually be diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Before the cancer went into remission, he would go through two lymphadenectomies, several rounds of intense chemotherapy, a drug trial, a stem cell transplant and, finally, radiation therapy. The pain and frustration he experienced were intense.
Side effects from the stem cell transplant included chills, fever, cramping, nausea, vomiting, aching all over, chest tightness, shortness of breath, headache, rapid heartbeat, decreased blood pressure and much more. Without an appetite, Corey didn’t eat for two weeks and lost 15 pounds. He barely had enough strength to stand. It took nearly two months from the date of his transplant for his sense of taste and strength to return to normal.
Following in the footsteps of his courageous family members, he tried to stay cheerful. “I’ll never forget laughing with friends as we went through a box of wigs that had been donated, despite how I was feeling,” says Corey.
Flags in the Wilderness
Corey’s cancer has now been in remission for more than four years. Filled with a new love for life, he took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend two weeks in Africa last January and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the fourth-tallest peak in the world and the highest on the continent.
In Tanzania, the Above and Beyond group spent time learning about the culture of the Chaaga and Maasi tribes, which Corey particularly enjoyed. The group spent seven days on the mountain, traversing bamboo forests, old lava flows, an immense crater and a barren desert before finally reaching the summit at sunrise.
During the trip, Corey struggled with altitude sickness, but it was worth the view from the top. At Crater Camp, down inside the non-active volcano cone, the group hung flags across the glacier for those who had passed away from cancer, including Corey’s own family members, and those who were fighting cancer at the time.
“I think I gained a new perspective on life and on being more compassionate,” says Corey. “On this trip, we all shared something in common—we had all been touched by cancer. It was neat to meet other people who had been down that same journey.”
Cancer is Here to Stay
Since returning from Tanzania, Corey has stayed involved with Above and Beyond Cancer, while continuing to work at Wells Fargo in West Des Moines. He participated in Race Across America, supporting eight cyclists as they biked from coast to coast and taking 12-hour shifts as a driver. He also ran the seven-mile Living History Farms Off-Road Race in November with the Above and Beyond team.
In June, Corey plans to push himself even further, participating in a coast-to-coast marathon relay. He will run his first-ever marathon somewhere in the Midwest and then pass the baton off to the next runner making their way across the country. Each of the marathoners, including Corey, is raising money for cancer research in support of his run.
“As a survivor, cancer will always play a role in my life,” says Corey. “I will always carry with me the memories of those I have lost and honor those who have survived. I have my grandfather’s smile, my mother’s drive and my father’s sense of humor. It is those traits they shared with me in the face of adversity that gave me the strength to overcome my own personal battles.”
Watch WOI ABC5 News’s coverage of Corey McMordie’s trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Video courtesy of ABC5 News