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Climbing Kilimanjaro for cancer patients

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Tell Cancer to Take a Hike chair Howard Stotland, second from right, is seen with Cliff Pavlovic, left, Janice Heft Sheiner, Alice Lehrer and Sharyn Katsof.

Hope & Cope is taking fundraising to new heights this year. Rather than the customary gala, a team will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, to benefit the acclaimed cancer support program.

Participants say they are inspired by the determination and spirit shown by people with the disease, who are climbing their own personal mountains. The expedition takes place March 8-20.

Retired retail software entrepreneur Howard Stotland is chair of the project, dubbed Tell Cancer to Take a Hike.

He climbed Kilimanjaro in 2011 and found it so exhilarating that he wanted others to experience it, and raise money for a cause that is very dear to him.

Stotland says the 5,885-metre ascent to the summit, if done at a gentle pace, is within the reach of almost anyone who’s in reasonable physical shape and has the right attitude, although 70 is the general cutoff age for participating in the hike.

Medically trained guides will escort the team along the way.

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The seven men and women who have signed up are training with expedition leader Terry Soucy, who has led five such climbs for various charitable causes. “I am happy to say that we’ve had great success getting everybody to the top of the mountain,” said Soucy.

Hope & Cope is affiliated with the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and has been operating for 37 years. All of its activities are offered free of charge, and it receives no government funding.

Each climber must raise a minimum of $6,000 for Hope & Cope and is responsible for all the costs associated with the trip, including the gear.

Stotland, who sits on Hope & Cope’s board, is soliciting corporate sponsors to help the fundraising effort reach its $360,000 goal.

For those who want less of a challenge, there’s a parallel track: a series of 10 monthly hikes in Quebec, called Kili Chez Nous.

The first is scheduled for March 17, when the mountaineers are expected to have made their final ascent to Kilimanjaro’s summit, while those back home will be hiking through Mont Tremblant park.

Mount Kilimanjaro (Muhammad Mahdi Karim/GFDL)

Throughout the year, participants will also hike through Rougemont, Orford and Sutton in the Eastern Townships, St-Donat in the Lanaudière and Charlevoix’s Grands Jardins National Park, which will be an overnight excursion.

The final hike, scheduled for Dec. 1, is a tour of Montreal’s three summits: Mount Royal, Westmount and Outremont.

The combined heights scaled on these local hikes approximates that of Kilimanjaro.

With a minimum of $2,000 in sponsorships ($3,000 for families), participants can go on as many hikes as they wish.

Kili Chez Nous co-chair Alice Lehrer is a firm believer in the healing power of exercising in nature. Six years ago, she founded Hope & Cope’s Mourning Walks program, which offers weekly walks on Mount Royal for those who are coping with the loss of someone close to them to cancer.

The organization is also planning hikes in Vermont, which are geared toward the many Montrealers who visit that state.

Life after cancer isn’t just about surviving, it’s about living life to the fullest.
– Denis Raymond

On hand for the Jan. 23 launch of Tell Cancer to Take a Hike, which was held at Hope & Cope’s Cancer Wellness Centre, was one of Quebec’s most famous adventurers, Bernard Voyer.

He has conquered the highest mountains on all seven continents, trekked to both the North and South Poles and skied across Greenland, among other feats. But Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, holds a special place in his heart, thanks to its sheer beauty.

Yet the greatest inspiration was provided by Denis Raymond, who, in 2013, at age 26, was diagnosed with brain cancer – a baseball-sized tumour in his right frontal lobe. It was an aggressive form of cancer with a grim prognosis, but thanks to an intensive experimental treatment, Raymond has been returning to normal life over the past two years.

The Ottawa resident came to Montreal to pursue a master’s degree in social work. He connected with Hope & Cope’s Cancer Fight Club, which addresses the specific needs of young adults with cancer (an age group that, unlike children and older adults, tends to be overlooked).

Besides the overwhelming shock, cancer interrupted Raymond’s teaching career and his travels, and forced him to move back home with his parents.

He said that the Cancer Fight Club has given him “community,” a space where he can draw strength from others who are facing a similar battle. He is currently doing his social work internship at Hope & Cope, as a way of giving back to the organization.

Before his illness, Raymond had enjoyed adventuring in remote parts of the globe. He is gradually getting back to it – he climbed Peru’s Machu Picchu last year and will take part in Kili Chez Nous.

“Life after cancer isn’t just about surviving, it’s about living life to the fullest,” Raymond said. “Hope & Cope helps people do that.”