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At 29,029 ft. above sea level, Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth.
Every year hundreds of people apply for permits to make the climb. One of the most popular activities is trekking to Everest base camp, which at 17,590 ft. is still higher than many mountains in the world.
Earlier this year, Dr. Anthony Fyles and his son Alex Fyles decided to take on the challenge of trekking to the base camp of Mount Everest for an important cause – increasing cancer treatment for people in developing countries.
They joined a group of cancer advocates and survivors for the climb to help improve cancer care in Nepal with a goal of providing radiation machines and training through an organization called Radiating Hope.
"I have done work in the past with other groups related to cancer services particularly for women with cervical cancer in the developing world, so taking part in this really fit in with both of our interests," says Dr. Fyles, a radiation oncologist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.
Radiating Hope is a volunteer-run, non-profit organization that uses mountain climbing expeditions to raise funds and awareness to improve cancer care, specifically radiation oncology care, around the globe.
Radiation therapy is a vital component of most cancer treatments. About 55 per cent of patients with cancer receive radiation as part of their treatment, but most people living in developing nations do not have access to this crucial treatment due to a lack of radiation equipment.
The worldwide standard for cancer care is there should be one radiation megavoltage machine for every 100,000 to 200,000 people living in a region. More than 26 million people live in Nepal, but only three radiation oncology centres and four radiation therapy devices exist in the country.
Making the trek
Having done several cycling trips to Europe and other destinations in the past, Dr. Fyles and Alex, a security guard at the Princess Margaret, hoped this would help with their stamina and preparation. But both agree the trek was more challenging than they had imagined.
"We tried to prepare a bit - we did a few hikes with loaded backpacks and some general training," Alex says. "I did a lot of Stairmaster. We got through it – about five or six people couldn't finish the trek as they had difficulty with the altitude."
In addition to altitude, the trek to base camp involves dealing with a variety of changing terrain from forests to a rocky moonscape. The group spent 10 days hiking up, and four days getting down, including two days of rest to adjust to the altitude.
"It's tougher than we expected, especially coming down because we had to deal with a bit of a snowstorm," Dr. Fyles adds.
"There was something on a website that said you just have to train a little bit and the climb is rated as a two out of five. We thought 'oh that's not too bad,' but later realized five is climbing Everest – so the rating system was a bit skewed, but it was a good challenge."
Prior to leaving for the trek, Dr. Fyles hung prayer flags outside of his office so passersby could write messages on the flags. He and Alex had the flags blessed by a Lama, a teacher in Tibetan Buddishm, in Dingboche, a Sherpa village in the Khumbu region of northeastern Nepal.
"We took them up to base camp and we put them on a little altar, and then another travelling Lama comes and blesses them," Dr. Fyles explains. "They then string them out across the base camp and the idea is that as the wind passes all of the messages on the flags will be scattered around the world. It was nice to be able to do that."
A good cause
In addition to the climb, the group also had the opportunity to visit the cancer centre in
Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Understanding the need for treatment technology helped put the trek into perspective.
"Cervical cancer is a big problem in Nepal – it's about 40 per cent of the cases they see," Dr. Fyles says.
"By contributing towards getting the facility equipped with more technology, hopefully it helps avoid the situation where young women die of the disease and leave their families and young children behind."