Elekta’s Ashley Cogswell gears up again for Radiating Hope

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Mount Kilimanjaro hike last year, Everest Base Camp expedition in 2017 for company’s Director of Software Sales

After an epic 2016 climb to the summit of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro with Radiating Hope, Ashley Cogswell, 34, knew that this type of activity would not be a one-off event for her. Six months after her Kilimanjaro journey, she signed up to hike to the base camp of Mt. Everest in Nepal with Radiating Hope in April 2017. Radiating Hope (www.radiatinghope.org) is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing radiation oncology equipment to areas of the world that currently have little or no access to cancer treatment. Wavelength (WL) spoke with Ashley about her upcoming adventure.

WL: Why are you doing these climbs with Radiating Hope?

Ashley: A colleague at Elekta had climbed Kilimanjaro with Radiating Hope a year before and I saw his photos on Facebook. I thought it looked amazing. In 2015, I attended ASTRO with my company and listened to a talk by Dr. Brandon Fisher, a radiation oncologist and a founder of Radiating Hope, about why he and his co-founders started the organization. I was so inspired by how they saw a need to do something that seemed extremely difficult – providing radiation oncology technology and services to underserved countries. Their view was that if you look up at a mountain from the very bottom you might think that climbing it is impossible, like there’s no way to get to the top. Dr. Fisher said they approached bringing radiation oncology to these emerging regions the same way. They just said they had to start somewhere, by taking small steps and seeing what they could do.

It was really eye opening – that people are suffering and dying simply due to lack of access to the technology and services.

The statistics on cancer incidence in these regions are really sobering. For instance, it’s is the number one killer in Africa – higher than HIV, tuberculosis and AIDS combined. And Africans and people in dozens of other underserved regions are not only dying of cancer, but often without any access to treatment or pain relief. Here in a developed country like the USA, we are really in a “bubble.” We get to choose our doctor; we interview them and pick the best one with the best equipment and so forth. We have such exceptional care here that unless someone calls attention to it doesn’t cross your mind.

It’s also gratifying that my employer, Elekta, also appreciates the need to do more to help developing countries get access to cancer treatment technology. A guiding mission of Elekta over the last several years has been to greatly expand our reach into countries and areas that are underserved from a cancer treatment technology standpoint. Last year, in fact, Elekta strengthened its partnership with Radiating Hope, facilitating the placement of radiation therapy equipment in five countries in Africa and Central America.

So, I had to get involved and be part of the solution. Even though I had never hiked before or camped, I determined that I was going to climb Kilimanjaro and after that I immediately knew I was going to climb to the Everest Base Camp.

WL: How does your participation help Radiating Hope?

Ashley: Just to participate, I should emphasize that I pay all of my own personal expenses, including food, lodging and airfare. To benefit Radiating Hope exclusively, it’s just like other charities – I raise donations through personal fundraising. For the Kilimanjaro climb, through my friends, colleagues, family and other contacts, I was able to raise over $15,000 to help bring cancer treatment to Tanzania. Our climbing group raised more than $100,000 – which funded bringing two radiotherapy treatment machines to an area that previously had none. For the Everest Base Camp climb, I am asking people to donate $29.00, which is $1.00 for each 1,000 feet to the summit of Mt. Everest! Though my climb is just to the base camp, six of our group will attempt an ascent to the top.

If anyone would like to donate to this worthy cause, they can visit my fundraising page here (www.crowdrise.com/ash-does-everest). Donations are 100 percent tax deductible!

WL: What are some of the details around a climb to Everest Base Camp?

Ashley: The trek to base camp takes 10 or 11 days starting on April 9, then three or four days for the descent back down – about two weeks and 72 miles for the entire journey. The altitude at Everest Base Camp is a little under 18,000 feet above sea level. We’re going to camp there one night and then come back down.

Two groups of 35 will start the climb at about 4,000 or 5,000 feet and proceeding another 2.6 to 2.8 additional miles above sea level, which is not a walk in the park, especially given the constantly thinning oxygen levels as you ascend. I would say this is more of an endurance hike because we’re doing it over the course of two weeks.

During the trip up and back down we will camp in teahouses, so unlike tent camping that we did in Tanzania, these are more like small indoor structures. Some of them have toilets inside, but many of them just provide outhouses. The weather in April is fairly mild so during the day it might be warm enough to just wear a T-shirt, while the nights can get cold. (For more information, see sidebar: Think you want to trek to Everest Base Camp? Pack these tips!)

WL: How did you prepare physically for this climb?

Ashley: I started training seriously in January. I’ve been doing a lot of spinning, just like last year – about four days a week. It’s good for cardio and if you turn the dial up it’s really good for your leg muscles. I also have been running on the treadmill and walking at about a 15-degree incline for about an hour. It’s just getting your body used to something a little more strenuous and then also going on really long walks. For instance, if I’m meeting my friends somewhere for dinner I tell them I’ll be there in two hours, because I will be walking there to meet them.

WL: What do you want to tell others about participating in these Radiating Hope climbs?

Ashley: I’m not the most athletic person in the world. In fact a friend teased me that my athleticism was limited to running through airports in high heels. So, I feel like if I can do it anyone can. Just sign up and figure the rest out afterward. If you say yes, everything will fall into place.

If this sort of intense physical activity still doesn’t appeal to you, you can still make a difference. At Radiating Hope.org, you can dedicate Tibetan Prayer Flags to cancer patients. These Prayer Flags represent hope, strength and well-being and are carried by Radiating Hope climbers on expeditions.

Whatever you decide to do, just know that you’re supporting an organization that is making a real difference in people’s lives. As part of my job at Elekta, I work with different hospitals and I see firsthand that in the USA our standard of cancer care is really exceptional. Through Radiating Hope, I met people in Tanzania who didn’t even know that there were any treatments for cancer. They told me that if you get cancer you just die. Simply knowing that I am contributing to an organization that is changing the landscape of cancer care is enough to keep me climbing mountains.

Since 2012, Radiating Hope has been able to place 15 radiation machines in places like Tanzania, Senegal, Ukraine, Guatemala and Honduras. Radiating Hope plans to make an even bigger difference in areas of the world where cancer patients are underserved. Nepal – where Everest Base Camp is – is one of these areas, with just four working radiation machines serving a population of 28 million. With the Everest Base Camp climb, we hope to improve that ratio, if even by a little bit.

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