Survival instinct |

Survival instinct

Naomi Havlen
Cancer survivor Sean Patrick is the 2005 recipient of Climbing Magazines Golden Piton Award for her efforts to speed ovarian cancer research. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

To say the least, Sean Patrick wasn’t willing to sit idly by when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer eight years ago.Patrick, 53, was once told she had four to six weeks to live, or could undergo a major surgery that she had a 20 percent chance of surviving.As a rock climber and enthusiastic athlete, Patrick said she considered herself a risk taker, and wasn’t happy with the prospect of living the rest of her short life in agony. In her battle with cancer, she has had seven surgeries.After the surgeries, she gathered her climbing friends and began a nonprofit organization devoted to putting a different face on the mysterious disease. For the past three years, she’s been a successful fund raiser for ovarian cancer awareness and research.Now, Patrick’s HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation is being honored in the June issue of Climbing Magazine with the Golden Piton Award for service.”I didn’t think this would be a multi-year type of thing,” said the Carbondale resident, looking back at the days when she was recovering from surgery and masterminding the Climb for Life with friends. “I thought we’d do it once and raise some money. But we’re having our fourth annual Climb for Life in September.”

Her nonprofit has raised more than $240,000 for ovarian cancer research and support. HERA, an acronym for Health, Empowerment, Research and Advocacy, holds the Climb for Life each year in Salt Lake City, Utah. The event features world-class climbers helping everyone from novices to experts raise money. Participants pay an entry fee and have friends and family sponsor them, promising to climb a certain amount of feet.”We’ve been able to fund seven research projects on ovarian cancer at Johns Hopkins and MD Anderson Cancer Center,” Patrick said. Locally, the nonprofit partners with the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation to give adult cancer patients in the valley financial assistance.’I’m not supposed to be here’It took a while for Patrick to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In 1997 she was working at Impact Group, a marketing firm in Snowmass Village, and was feeling exhausted every day.”My doctor said I was working too hard and maybe working out too much,” she said. “And maybe I needed to get a hobby.”Of all the myths about ovarian cancer that Patrick works to dispel, one is that the disease does not have any symptoms. Recent studies show that symptoms are often gastrointestinal, rather than pelvic, and are overlooked or misdiagnosed.

“People think that it’s a disease that happens to elderly women, when I’ve met people diagnosed as young as 13,” she said. “I used to think it wasn’t a disease that happened to me and my friends.”In 2001 she was flown to Denver when she became violently ill and was told she didn’t have long to live unless she wanted to try the risky procedure.”I thought, ‘Four to six weeks to live in agony? I don’t think so,'” she said. Patrick still lives with her cancer, but does so knowing she has the support from some heavy-duty sponsorships from outdoor sporting goods companies.Peter Metcalf from Black Diamond Climbing Equipment signed up for a large sponsorship with the foundation and urged other companies to do the same. REI now holds an indoor Climb for Life Road Tour at its climbing facilities across the country.HERA has also gotten support from Timberland, the North Face and Nike.Besides providing funding for research, Patrick hopes the organization can empower young women to be more proactive about their own health and learn the facts about ovarian cancer. Sadly, awareness may not be on the rise yet because the disease does not have a large number of survivors to speak out.An organization she admires, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, has been working hard at its cause for 20 years, she said, compared to the three years she has been working with HERA.

“But I’m still amazed at how far we’ve come, and it’s not just me – I get a tremendous amount of support from friends and the climbing industry,” she said. “I can’t claim all the credit for our successes.”Patrick just returned from Washington, D.C., where she spoke to the women in the Senate and House of Representatives, providing statistics about the disease.”It’s really important for me to raise awareness for the disease since I can give back, because I’m not supposed to be here,” she said. “I was very lucky in my life, and I think it’s very important for all of us to find a way to make a difference in the world.”For more information, visit http://www.climb4life.orgNaomi Havlen’s e-mail address is

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