This family beat medical odds to climb the highest mountain in Africa. They set a record.
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Cigna 2017

Sarah Getter rouses her kids out of bed and gets them ready for school every single morning. But on this day, she woke them up at 11 o’clock at night.

There was no school that day, and they were in a tent in Africa, getting ready to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The final night of their hike had to be done at night because humans should only be at the summit for 20 minutes or risk altitude sickness. Plus, the best time to see the view from the top is at sunrise.


So, on one cold, dark night in 2015, the Getter family — Sarah, her husband, Bobby, and their kids, Roxy and Ben — all rolled out of their tents and prepped themselves for the final hike to the top.

All images via Sarah Getter, used with permission.

“It’s kind of terrible, that whole last night,” Sarah laughs. “It’s so cold and dark, and you just feel like you’re never gonna make it."

But a few hours later, the Getters did indeed reach the top — making Roxy, who was 9 at the time, the youngest girl ever to complete the climb.

Also impressive? Roxy and Ben were both born with heart issues that could make it really easy to turn down this sort of challenge. But they didn't let that hold them back all.

“It was incredible. We were so proud of them,” Sarah says, of Roxy and Ben, who was 10. “For my husband and I ... it was very emotional.”

For most families, even a trip to Disney World with the kids can feel like a barely accomplishable feat of superhuman strength. But for the Getters, bringing the kids to the fourth highest mountaintop on Earth was surprisingly manageable.

“They really did it for themselves,” she says. “We didn’t push them. They didn’t whine or complain. They wanted to do it. And that was really neat, to see your kids accomplish something like that.”

“We didn’t go into it saying ‘We’re all gonna make it to the top’,” Sarah says. “We went into it saying, ‘We’re gonna be safe and do the best we can, and if we make it to the top, that’s amazing.’" And that's exactly what they did.

Of course, safety was an especially important concern for the Getters because their kids' heart conditions already require frequent check-ups.

Roxy was born with an atrial septal defect, a small hole in her heart that had to be closed by a surgeon when she was a baby. Ben has a less serious, much more common condition called a patent foramen ovale — also a heart hole, but a smaller one that just requires monitoring.

Along with the regular packing and planning, Sarah had to make sure she got her kids the preventive check-ups they needed to make the hike safe for them.

“I would never have taken the trip without getting confirmation from the doctor,” she says. “We like to be adventurous, but in a safe way.”

All adults should see a doctor at least once a year to ensure a healthy heart and overall wellness. But Ben and Roxy have been seeing a cardiologist since they were babies because it’s super important that the family keeps an eye on the kids’ heart health so they can catch any issues early.

“But we knew this was something completely different than we’d ever done," Sarah says. "I just really wanted to make sure that we were making the right decision, and we wouldn’t be putting them in harm’s way.”

"We made sure we took every precaution that we could," says Sarah. Her husband is a physician, and they traveled with another doctor. They also picked a trekking company they trusted, packed every possible medication, and came prepared to get the kids off the mountain if they had needed to.

In the end, it all turned out fine — neither of the kids got “even one ounce” of altitude sickness.

The only Getter who did get sick was Sarah. "Day 3, I was just extremely nauseous and not feeling very good at all," she laughs.  The kids, on the other hand, were right as rain.

Still, the family's cautiousness was what kept the kids safe — and gave Sarah peace of mind.

So what's next for a family who's already summited Kilimanjaro?

"You know what, we don't have anything so adventurous planned yet," says Sarah. But Roxy and Ben continue to be adventurers, taking on gymnastics, soccer, horseback riding, hiking, surfing, and more.

"The kids — they're not afraid of things," Sarah says. And thanks to their parents' steady commitment to getting their health checked, they have no reason to be.

Roxy and Ben are free to be adventurers, and their parents are free to come along for the ride. "We try a lot of different things. And it's always a lot of fun."

Though the Getters have a special reason to be strict about getting their heart health checked, everyone should do the same when it comes to knowing their four health numbers — blood sugar, cholesterol, Body Mass Index (BMI) and blood pressure — and schedule regular preventive check-ups with your doctor, even if you don't think you have pre-existing health issues.

As Sarah can attest, it's always better to be prepared before an emergency arises (whether or not it happens on the top of a mountain).

Learn more about how to take control of your health at Cigna.com/TakeControl.

Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

The "Big 5" is an old term from the colonial era, denoting the five wild animals in Africa that were the most sought-after kills for trophy hunters. Killing those five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo—meant ultimate success in the big-game hunting world.

Now there's a "New Big 5," but instead of a barbaric goal for trophy hunters, it's a beautiful goal for wildlife photographers.

The initiative was created by British wildlife photographer Graeme Green with the goal of raising awareness about threats to the world's animals including habitat loss, poaching, illegal animal trade, and climate change. In a global call for votes, 50,000 wildlife lovers shared which animals they most wanted to photograph or see in photos. And the winners are:

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Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

The "Big 5" is an old term from the colonial era, denoting the five wild animals in Africa that were the most sought-after kills for trophy hunters. Killing those five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo—meant ultimate success in the big-game hunting world.

Now there's a "New Big 5," but instead of a barbaric goal for trophy hunters, it's a beautiful goal for wildlife photographers.

The initiative was created by British wildlife photographer Graeme Green with the goal of raising awareness about threats to the world's animals including habitat loss, poaching, illegal animal trade, and climate change. In a global call for votes, 50,000 wildlife lovers shared which animals they most wanted to photograph or see in photos. And the winners are:

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."