When Justin Anderson was first diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010, things looked bleak. Not only because of the wave of fear that came with his diagnosis, but because of insurance troubles.
“I had to go to Iowa City to be treated for cancer because of my insurance,” Anderson. “It was there I found the hope lodge” — a discovery that sent him on a path that this week will lead to Africa and an opportunity to help cancer patients there through the Des Moines nonprofit Above + Beyond Cancer.
The Russell and Ann Gerdin American Cancer Society City Hope Lodge in Iowa City provides cancer patients and their caregivers with a free place to stay when they’re being treated in a city away from where they live.
Anderson, 26, of Clear Lake, lived almost three hours north of Iowa City during his treatment. But he found more than a convenient place to stay in the Iowa City hope lodge. He found a home away from home.
“It was an amazing and an inspiring experience,” Anderson said. “I met lifelong friends there … It was just such a cool experience to be able to live around other people who were going through exactly what I was going through.”
And, his cancer now in remission, Anderson has been given the chance to help other patients feel the same sense of hope and home he felt in a hope lodge.
The aim of the Above + Beyond Cancer trip Anderson is taking is to help build the first hope lodge outside of the United States.
ABOVE + BEYOND CANCER: South America trip | Pursuing a life of purpose
Anderson and 32 other cancer patients and caregivers from Above + Beyond Cancer will be traveling to Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday to work on the new hope lodge at the Kenyatta National Hospital. They’ll be working with doctors, planting a garden and putting finishing touches on the new hope lodge.
But that’s on the beginning of their journey. After working on the hope lodge, the Above + Beyond Cancer team will travel to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Of the 33 people going on the trip, 15 are cancer survivors and four are survivors with incurable cancer.
Dr. Richard Deming, founder of Above + Beyond Cancer, works to provide a message of hope and energy on trips with Above + Beyond Cancer.
“The individuals going on this journey to Africa are doing so not in spite of their cancer, but really because of their cancer,” Deming said. “Because of the courage and the confidence they gained in their cancer journey.”
Deming said the trip has two parts, with two different goals. The first is to give back.
“Many of the individuals, some of whom have incurable cancer themselves, are going on this trip to help really pay it forward,” Deming said. “They know that they are blessed because of the support they got in their cancer journey, and they want to passionately and generously help others.”
The second part, though, is about resilience. It’s about grit. It’s about reaching above and beyond what you think you can do, to find out what you can achieve, Deming said.
“The individuals will have the opportunity to really tap into the strength they gain on their cancer journey and the resilience that they have and climb up Kilimanjaro,” Deming said. “It’s a difficult trip. It’s not technically challenging — we’re not gonna be hanging from ropes or our fingernails — but it is a very steep, steady climb for days on end where you have to really tap into your own strength and really figure out why you’re doing this. Why you want to take one more step.”
The Rev. Richard Graves, a priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marshalltown, has learned a lot about finding a reason to take one more step since he started working with Above + Beyond Cancer in 2012.
Graves, 66, has Stage 4 terminal prostate cancer.
He’s also full of life and positive energy. He said he has “butterflies,” he’s so excited to embark on the trip to Africa.
He’s been training since September at the Wellmark YMCA in downtown Des Moines every Tuesday with a group going on the trip, and said he’s seen his body transform, thanks to “a lot of squats and a good group of people.”
Graves has been on a trip with Above + Beyond cancer before. In 2012, he traveled to the high Himalayas.
“A big part of what cancer survivorship is about is not just what you gain as you go through your cancer journey, but what you’re able to share with others,” Graves said. “About what it means to be alive.”