Lessons From the Arctic: Eric Larsen on Surviving Cancer

In the face of a daunting cancer diagnosis, polar explorer Eric Larsen discovered unexpected solace and strength in the lessons he had learned from polar exploring.

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here. This episode contains graphic content that may not be suitable for all listeners. 

Join us for a captivating episode of the Out Alive podcast as we explore the awe-inspiring journey of renowned polar explorer Eric Larsen. He fearlessly navigated treacherous icy terrains and conquered unimaginable challenges. However, when faced with cancer, he encountered an entirely different battle.

In this deeply personal and candid conversation, Eric opens up about his arduous fight, sharing triumphs, setbacks, and invaluable life lessons. Discover the transformative power of his polar exploration experience and the Arctic lessons he learned for surviving cancer. As one of the world’s most accomplished polar adventurers, Eric tested the limits of human endurance in harsh environments. Yet, his confrontation with cancer pushed him to emotional and physical limits in unexpected ways. Tune in to this extraordinary episode as Eric Larsen, renowned polar explorer, reveals the intersection of Arctic exploration and the fight for survival. Prepare to be inspired and gain insights that can empower you in your own battles.

Transcript

Louisa: At its core, survival as we talk about it on this show, is one thing: the act of getting back home. For some lost in the woods, that might be a physical place somewhere with a hot shower and a familiar bed, but it might be the chance to see your loved one’s faces again, or simply a feeling of safety and security.

In the best of times, the outdoors themselves can feel like home. ButAnd when some unforeseen circumstances keep us from experiencing those wild places that fuel us, we might begin to question our sense of self. Today we’ll explore how an earth-shattering illness can offer a whole new perspective on life, adventure, and coming home. Today’s episode will be hosted by Zoe Gates, who’s a producer on our show.

Eric Larsen: My name is Eric Larsen. I’m a polar adventure and expedition guide. But realistically,  I’m just a professional camper. 

Zoe: I first met Eric Larsen four years ago on a video shoot for Backpacker. 

GPS Course Audio: Why are you qualified to teach this course? I’ve been asking myself since you reached out to that. To me, I have no idea.

Zoe: What I remember most is that he was a jokester. 

GPS Course Audio: I like to explore in the wilderness because I don’t like interacting with other people. I hate talking and find that most people are annoying. 

Zoe: After just a few days, we ended the project with an entire blooper reel of Eric deadpanning into the camera, making up songs, and juggling GPS devices.

GPS Course Audio: I believe in navigation. Where are you from? You sexy waypoint. You sexy waypoint. How can you mark?

Zoe: For a guy used to exploring the most extreme landscapes on the planet, he didn’t take himself too seriously. 

GPS Course Audio: Every day you’re tracking my…

Eric Larsen: I like being outside. I like sleeping in a tent, and my goal in life really has always been to try to sleep in a tent and outside as much as I possibly could.

And that’s really been the singular focus of my life. Also have fun, learn things, see new places, and equally important, connect people to those places. 

Zoe: I’m lucky enough to have been one of those people. Last spring, Eric invited me to join him and a group of clients on a polar expedition training course in northern Minnesota. My week with Eric culminated in a five-day ski on the frozen lake of the woods in a simulation of polar conditions. I was there to report a story for Backpacker, and my companions were training for trips to the North and South poles. Under Eric’s purview, we were learning from the best.

Eric Larsen: I’ve spent the last 25 years traveling to mostly the coldest places on the planet, and I really enjoy wilderness travel of any sort, but I like the physical and mental challenges of extreme cold and trying to be able to travel in those places safely.

I also like to push my personal limits and push what I would call the leading edge of adventure. Today we’re not discovering new places, and so as a result, I’ve done some expeditions to the North Pole, the South Pole, Greenland, and quite a few places in between. 

Zoe: Eric’s a humble guy, so I’ll say what he won’t. In the world of polar exploration, he’s a big deal. In 2006, Eric and a partner completed the first ever summer expedition to the North Pole, paddling and pulling modified canoes more than 500 miles over the Arctic Ocean. He’s the only person to reach the North and South poles and the peak of Mt. Everest within a year’s time.

In 2014, Eric and his partner Ryan Waters, likely became the last team to reach the North Pole unsupported on foot from land. 

Eric Larsen: I really love the Arctic Ocean, and traveling to the North Pole because it’s such a unique environment, so unlike any other place. It’s just a thin skin of ice over a 14,000-foot deep, icy ocean, and it’s constantly changing.

So it’s a very challenging place to try to move forward, let alone just try to live. 

Zoe: He doesn’t see it this way, but Eric’s experiences in extreme environments could fill a whole season of this podcast. And while he’s drawn to a challenge, he’s far from reckless. Eric’s a husband and a father to two young kids. Over the years, he’s reduced polar travel to a science. 

Eric Larsen: I am a pretty careful person, and I don’t like being in dangerous situations at all. That being said, I’ve put myself in some dangerous situations over the years with some fairly major consequences. Back in 2006, I don’t even think I could do this again today, but we did an expedition on the Arctic Ocean.

We were out on the ice for 72 days, and it was in the summer. It was the first ever summer expedition to the North Pole. There was a point around the 84th parallel, about 40 days into our journey where we basically had to say after this point, we’re not getting rescued. If anything happens, there’s really no way out of here.

And. I don’t think I could put myself in that same situation. I feel like I’m a boring person because I don’t have all those cool stories. But I’ve had polar bears jump on my tent. I’ve been stalked by a polar bear. 

Zoe: Ah, yes. Typical boring person stuff. 

Eric Larsen: There was one, one instance where we were skiing to the North Pole and we were doing these double pulls of a sled. Our sleds were so heavy and the ice was so rough that two of us would pull one sled forward and then we’d go back and get the other one. When we stopped to unhook from the sled, there were two polar bears coming up right behind us, maybe about 15 feet away. Luckily we had had the gun that we carry in the sled that we were pulling because had it been in the other sled, I might not be having this conversation.

Zoe: Eric speaks about polar bears with a casualness that only someone who’s built their career on adventure travel could muster. But the thing that finally caused him to face his own mortality was something that’s all too familiar for a lot of people. 

Eric Larsen: I would say that the story of my cancer diagnosis starts with Covid.

Prior to Covid, I was on a tear. I was doing great expeditions, some of which were successful. I had a lot of incredible partners, really amazing opportunities. I was working very hard. Our family had moved to Crested Butte full-time, which was amazing. I was on the road for four or five months a year, which was difficult, but it was also the culmination of many, many years, decades of hard work.

And so when Covid hit, it was actually a relief because I got to slow down. I got to be around for my daughter’s birthday, which is a time, besides when she was born, I was always gone. It was really nice; challenging, of course. But for our family who didn’t really suffer any of the severe effects of Covid, it was all right.

Zoe: In the summer of 2020, Eric broke his collarbone and sustained a serious concussion. Even as his bone healed, his recovery wasn’t progressing normally. Eric was constantly fatigued, inexplicably losing weight and suffering from digestive problems. 

Eric Larsen: I ended up getting a colonoscopy, and I was busy as I always was. I was getting back to working. I was leaving for Lake of the Woods where I do my polar training course in just a few days, and when I woke up from that procedure, my wife was in the waiting room, which was unusual, and the doctor sat me down and said, you have cancer, and you’re not going anywhere, and you, you may need immediate surgery.

That was the needle scratch that changes the trajectory of everything and stops everything. As a mostly healthy person prior to that, I didn’t really have much interaction with hospitals and doctors and procedures, and just that word cancer is so overwhelming.

I remember driving back from the hospital and just trying to focus just to get home and trying to block all that other stuff out. You get thrown into the scans and tests and all this stuff. Within a couple days the diagnosis came back that it looked like it was stage four. The cancer had spread to my lungs.

That’s a stage four diagnosis. Colorectal cancer, stage four, is very deadly. There are chances of survival, but the reality was is my doctors at that time were giving me about four years to live. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I couldn’t talk to my mom. I couldn’t sleep.

Thankfully, my wife, Maria, was around because she just went into information overdrive and called up every other doctor that we knew, or connection or friend or friend of a friend to try to just see how we could get more information. Eventually what came about was the fact that I would should probably get some additional tests.

And I got one lung test and then finally got a lung biopsy where they actually go in through your side, deflate your lung, take the piece of the tissue out, and then biopsy it. I got very lucky that stuff in my lungs wasn’t cancer. So that changed the diagnosis. And as soon as that happens, the whole language around this terrible disease changes in not an optimistic way, but a better way for your mind, or at least for my mind, because then they actually used the word cure. I didn’t allow myself to think that I would be cured, but just hearing that word and the possibility of that word allowed a little bit of hope, which wasn’t even the worst of it looking back now. 

Zoe: Of course, polar adventures were far from Eric’s mind when he received his diagnosis. Still, Eric’s a guy who has had to make peace with discomfort in some of the cruelest environments on earth. I wondered if that practice informed how he functioned as a patient. 

Eric Larsen: The only thing I thought about when I was first diagnosed was just my family. I didn’t think about the North Pole or polar bears or anything like that. I was just like, how can I try to get one more day. How old will they be when I’m dead? What will they remember? Moving past that, I don’t think I ever moved past it, but moving forward was a lot like an expedition because you are trying to move yourself forward in a way to minimize the pain, to get through each day, both physically and mentally toward an uncertain outcome where the conditions are constantly changing.

Even though I didn’t think about those expeditions, I know a lot about traveling in uncertain conditions toward an uncertain outcome. Surprisingly to me, a lot of what I ended up doing, either by the day or by the week through my various treatments, was relying on a lot of that stuff. And whether it was just suffering through chemo and just trying to get through that day, and then the next day, which is exactly what we do on expeditions. We never think about the end of the expedition on day one. It’s just too far. There’s too much hardship and suffering in between those two points. Whether it was just an individual chemo infusion, or just trying to think, “Okay, I’ve got six infusions total.” I never thought about the fifth one. I’m just like, okay, one more, and then I’m halfway. It’s just taking these little steps. And that’s exactly how we travel in polar environments. It’s just the first hour and then get to halfway through the day where we get to have some warm soup, and then the tent at night.

And doing that and setting those small goals and those small steps, you’re able to work through it a little bit better. I think I also live in uncertainty pretty well. One of my expedition mottoes, which not a lot of people enjoy when they work with me, is “let’s just go up there and see what happens.”

When you’re in an environment that’s constantly changing, you can’t necessarily make a rigid plan. You can’t say this is what we’re gonna do and we’re always gonna do this. You have a structure, you have a guideline in the system, but at the end of the day, you have to just adapt to what the environment is giving you.

And so I think for myself dealing with chemo, radiation, surgery, and all the crap that was with that, I think I was able to just adapt to those changes relatively well and accept what was coming down the pipeline toward me. 

Zoe: Something I admire about Eric is how open he’s been about this time in his life, both about the darkness that comes with intense physical pain and about the loneliness of being sick.

Eric Larsen: After my surgery, when I had this tear, I had 14 inches of my colon removed. I was in the hospital for two weeks. I had a brutal infection. I had these drains in my butt for months. I couldn’t sit in a chair for five months. So, at times I would just do what I could do and adapt as best as I could.

Our world is designed around being healthy people. We have this infrastructure in place for those of us who aren’t healthy. But in reality, the world is designed for the living, and as soon as you step out of that lane, everything just passes you by: a potential for a future, going out for a beer, a casual conversation. Those are things that you are no longer a part of. At a certain point, that is just one of many other infinitely terrible things, and most of the time just felt like a human punching bag because you just feel like, how much more can I take? How much more pain and suffering? And the physical pain is one thing, but the mental anguish, the uncertainty, the financial strain of not working, the impacts of our family dynamics, and my relationship with my wife, how I’m not able to do anything for her. It’s just a series of punches square in your face where even any sort of semblance of hope is taken away. I’ve always said from expeditions that hope can be a very dangerous thing. It can also sustain you, hope. I hope this will happen.

It’s a very uplifting feeling, but hope unrealized can be devastating. On an expedition, I have a very pessimistic view of what we hope to achieve so that I don’t get let down, like, “Oh, the ice is gonna be great up here,” and then it never is. It’s so mentally challenging that it becomes physically debilitating and that’s a very similar thing to being sick and having cancer as well.

Zoe: On top of everything else, Eric suffered from a cruel irony from one particular side effect that ultimately had him questioning his sense of self. 

Eric Larsen: I dealt with a pretty brutal chemo regimen where I couldn’t carry an empty box across the room. I had no energy, and one of my drugs gave me an extremely high, painful sensitivity to cold.

It was funny because when I was talking to my doctor, I was like, “Oh yeah, no problem. I got this. I know all about being in the cold, no problem.” And after my first chemo treatment, I walked outside and it was about 45 degrees and just painful needles in my hands just from that temperature.

I couldn’t even open the refrigerator without gloves on. Even walking outside, I couldn’t feel the breeze in my face. It would just be like intense pins and needles poking at me, instantly. There was nothing you could do. For me, I don’t have a lot to offer the world in one sense or any sort of great strengths, but I will say one of the things that I maybe pride myself on is my ability to withstand cold.

When that thing that was so core to my identity was stripped away, I just felt like I had no humanity. 

Zoe: As adventurers, we think and talk a lot about risk and about the decision to flirt with potentially life-threatening situations. For parents, that choice can be especially poignant. But Eric learned that when choice is stripped away altogether, it can cast the idea of risk in a whole new light.

I mean, the thing that was keeping me up at night was that my doctors were telling me I had four years to live. That was scary, but it was more about my kids, and me not being around for my kids and how that would impact them, my death would impact them. I knew that they would be fine.

I think that’s maybe more of a selfish thought, but it’s the thought that I had and the hard one to come to terms with. When you choose going into a life-threatening situation, there’s an arrogance associated with that, that you’re in control. That you are smart enough, that you are strong enough, that you have mastered all these things and so that you can persevere no matter what.

That’s how we feel alive as adventures by getting so close to that margin. But when death chooses you, that’s a completely different scenario, and it makes that earlier choice or those earlier choices that I made seem so silly and stupid in comparison because all you want is one more day. You don’t wanna put yourself in any sort of life-threatening situations. I’ve thought a lot about that dichotomy. I called up my mom. I was talking to my mom finally, and I said, “There’s only one direction we’re all going. Like, we’re all on the same path.”

Death would I not like to be in this situation? Yes. But I had a dream when I was a kid, I followed that to all these cool places and I was pretty lucky as a result. I also found an incredible relationship and this amazing family when I never had really thought much about being a father. I found this calmness and peace inside of me. Did I make mistakes? Are there things I probably shouldn’t have done? Most definitely. But at the end of the day, that’s just life. That was the mindset that I have and still have. It’s still hard to think about moving forward with a dark cloud over you, but we’re all in that same situation. We just choose to ignore the cloud, which is a good thing, I think.

Right before I got surgery, which was in September of 2021, to have a big chunk of my colon taken out. I had some scans of the chemo, and radiation had worked. The cancer’s gone. They don’t know it’s totally gone until they go in there and take everything out. But when you hear that there’s no evidence of the disease.

There’s a glimmer of hope there, but like I said, hope can be a dangerous thing because after that I had that surgery. I was in the hospital, which was insane, for two weeks, and then I spent months in some of the most pain of my entire life, not really able to walk much, taking oxycodone a ton. I had an ileostomy bag, which was so that my colon could heal.

I was trying to deal with this terrible infection from the surgery, so I’m not trying to be negative. It was just a lot of stuff, and maybe that is like an expedition too because it’s never like, “Oh, if we just do this one thing, everything’s gonna be easy.” At a certain point, everything is difficult.

My life isn’t a lottery where all of a sudden I get the winning ticket and everything changes and easy. It’s just always a struggle. That’s not a pessimistic view of reality. It’s just that hard things happen to people every day. That’s the nature of life. Good things should be celebrated, but when something bad happens, again, it’s also not a reason to throw your arms up and just give up. It’s just the nature of how the world works. What we’re trying to do as human beings is difficult. 

Zoe: We like to tie stories like this up into a neat bundle, the before and the after, point to a moment when things started getting better. But the reality, one that Eric is honest about, is that trauma is ongoing. Sometimes a return to normalcy isn’t a triumph, but something done out of necessity. While it’s okay to celebrate those steps as progress, Eric doesn’t sugarcoat it. 

Returning to work was in many ways a homecoming, but it was also an obligation to provide for his family.

Eric Larsen: After my surgery, the abscess at the surgery point started to diminish and the infection started going away and was actually able to sit. That was after five months of either kneeling, standing or laying down, that was all I could do. That was a great feeling for me, and that did allow me a little bit of hope.

And within the snap of a fingers, I’m like, “Oh, okay. I’ll lead my polar training course.” And that was amazing, funny and also maybe over-inflating my abilities at the same time.

Zoe: It was at this point in time that I met up with Eric and a handful of other clients in Minnesota. I had read about his cancer diagnosis, and from the outside I viewed his return to guiding as a stamp of victory.

I thought perhaps that cancer was in Eric’s rear view. In our interview, months later, Eric asked me how I saw him on that trip, if I noticed any faltering. I told Eric that I might have been distracted by the sub-zero temperatures, but to me, he seemed right at home. I remember the moment we set off from the shore on our skis.

Eric’s first real steps into the backcountry in many, many months. To me, there appeared to be an ease and a comfort in his stride as he let us out onto the ice. 

Eric Larsen: It was a little bit like coming home. I mean, I’m very comfortable. I don’t have to think about anything. Nothing’s new there for me. My body and my mind were a little new, and so it was just an interesting experience. I feel like that was a peak and then I’ve come backward a little bit and then keep going forward. So it’s still a rollercoaster that’s going on. But in one sense, that trip was super easy because with an ileostomy bag, I never had to go out of the tent to go to the bathroom. It’s crazy. 

Zoe: It was only in speaking with Eric months after that training trip that I realized just how much more nuanced the experience was for him. While I wanted to see it as a fresh chapter, an end to Eric’s battle with cancer, the reality wasn’t so neat.

Eric Larsen: I love what I do, but it’s also a job, and it’s the job that I’m good at. It’s the way that I am able to help support my family. In one sense, it wasn’t necessarily a choice. It was what I needed to do to be able to make ends meet. There was a lot of pressure and there was some uncertainty there for me. I know my body, I know what I can do physically. I know my energy level. I can do those things. So I was confident in my abilities in those situations for the most part. But I was still just unsure. 

This whole experience has been very life-changing for me, and trying to balance that thing that I was so focused on for 25 years seems less important. I just started moving forward, and I’m still on that path now, and I just started doing things, and it’s just like a trip.

Because there’s a lot of things that you do that are scary and that creates stress and uncertainty. You don’t know the outcome sometimes to deal with that. I just take this mental hand and that you just push all that stuff down and you just make your body move forward, and so, I think what I was doing is that same thing and hoping that a path emerges from that step, and then the next step, and then the one after that. I’m still on that path of figuring out the path. 

Zoe: Speaking with Eric, it’s hard not to be blown away by his eloquence. Eric Larsen’s an introspective person. Having spent time with him on the ice, I knew this, and I knew that both expeditions and life-changing illness can breed a similar self-scrutiny.

With Eric. I wondered, which was the chicken and which was the egg. 

Eric Larsen: Being introspective is the nature of the beast in polar expeditions. I mean, you’re dealing with these huge spaces, these huge distances and these amounts of time that don’t really exist in our modern world. I mean, doing the same thing for not just an hour or a day, but weeks and months with very little, if any change of scenery, and many days not even being able to see the horizon. You don’t have a choice but to go inward. What I’ve always done, and one of the things I say is the best way to be successful is to put yourself in a situation where you don’t have another choice.

And so in a polar expedition, I put myself in these situations and very quickly I come up against who I am as a human being, and there’s some parts that I don’t like, and there are things that I like as well. There are more than enough opportunities to go through every single interaction that you’ve ever had, and evaluate it and whatnot.

I think I might be self-reliant to a fault, both my personality and my profession in the sense that I’ve always relied on myself to get myself out of these tough situations. Laying in bed in so much pain with no real future, I tried to white knuckle my way through it. I mean, I’m an old-school guy and I grew up in the 70s and 80s where you were on your own and you didn’t talk about feelings. Some of that is good. On a lot of my trips, we purposely suppressed a lot of those emotions so that we can deal with all the crap. But when I was sick, whether I wanted to or not, I went back to that same place. Bring everything inward, focus on the things that I can do and get through the next minute.

Zoe: Just two years ago, Eric thought he had no future at all. Now he’s making plans again. For guiding, for expeditions, for life. 

Eric Larsen: I hesitate to say I’m back because I’m not the same person that I was. I’m still moving forward and still figuring out the path, but I’m able to move forward in a more normal way.

Your body’s just not the same. It doesn’t process food the same way. For a long time, I could barely leave the house without having an accident, and that’s challenging being in 30 below and not being able to control yourself in a normal adult way. That’s challenging and it’s very stressful for me. Very stressful. It’s incredible to still be outside. It’s incredible to be able to take some of my knowledge and pass it along to others. 

The physical me is doing the things, and the mental me is catching up. I’m even planning for some bigger trips. I think the reason I hesitate is not because I’m not excited about that, because I am, but what I don’t want to do is forget those hard-won lessons. It’s a gift to be here. I appreciate that. I’ve always felt that. If one thing that expeditions teach you is that when you’re deprived of everything else, that when you do have a thing or a comfort that it is a gift. But what I realize is that from this latest adventure, if you wanna call it that, I guess is that everybody has a struggle that to them seems like a life-or-death situation.

Understanding that for all of us is really important. I also think that taking that knowledge and using it to be a more understanding person toward others, and it doesn’t have to be anything huge, but just showing compassion in a time when we’re all very opinionated and righteous I think is also important.

When I look at myself, I don’t see any sort of great physical or mental package. I’m on the middle of the bell curve. I do believe that within each one of us is something incredible and something strong and able to overcome whatever is thrown at us. 

Louisa: This episode of Out Alive was written and edited by Zoe Gates and me, Louisa Albanese. Scoring and Sound Design was by Jason Paton.

Thanks so much to Eric Larsen for your candor and sharing your experience with us. You can follow Eric on his Polar Adventures on Instagram at @elexplore. You can find him on his website at ericlarsenexplorer.com. Eric’s also written a book On Thin Ice, An Epic Final Quest Into The Melting Arctic. And if you have a survival story you’re interested in sharing, you can email me at outalive@outsideinc.com.


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