Eric Larsen Takes His Strength from Compassion
When the polar explorer was at his lowest moment, he learned his most valuable lesson: kindness matters
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Eric Larsen shared his story with producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
I remember getting wheeled into the operating room and just bawling because the results of that test were directly impacting the course of my life. And I was sobbing, almost hyperventilating.
Facing Cancer—and an Uncertain Future
My name is Eric Larsen. I’m a polar adventurer and expedition guide. Roughly two years ago, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and what followed was easily the most difficult situation of my life in terms of having to deal with something that I didn’t have a choice in. And so to be put in a position where I might not live for more than just a couple of years and not being around for my kids was hard, to say the least.
Initially, it looked like I had cancer in my lungs, which was a stage-four prognosis. And one of my doctors said, well, you have three or four years to live.
Our kids were still going to school. My wife was still working. We had to pay bills. I didn’t want my sickness to impact my kids where it became the defining thing of their lives. And so in these initial stages, I was trying to do things on my own. So I very distinctly remember staying at a friend’s house, having a friend drop me off at the hospital. As a previously healthy person, you’re automatically thrust into this machine of modern medicine. A lot of it is incredible. But the procedures, the protocols, the check-ins, the pokes, the prods—these are all new things. And you’re alone. You know, that’s the other part of being sick is you can have the greatest support network in the world, but you’re the person with your own thoughts that’s laying there on that table.
I remember just kind of moving over to the operating table and just tears rolling down my face. And a nurse—I couldn’t see her face—but she reached up and grabbed my hand. Just that little bit of comfort, and then I was out.
But that uncertainty and the consequence of that surgery, it’s… it’s hard to think back to that moment. And it was a year and a half ago. That moment was the weakest moment of my life. And I don’t mind being weak or not being able to do something. I don’t have any sort of huge ego associated with my muscles or whatever. But you’re just so vulnerable. You’re beaten down. And so that compassion, just that little bit of kindness—I think the thing that moves mountains isn’t these big efforts, it’s these little pieces. And that was a conscious act that she did. Probably never thought about it again. But for me it was life-changing. But I think, as I look back now, I realize how important those little things are
I mean, I’m a 51-year-old dude. I grew up in the seventies and eighties in a time where problems weren’t discussed. And, you know, for better or worse, that’s the framework from which I learned. I’m also a really independent person. I’ve solved a lot of really difficult problems on my own. To a certain extent, that’s a drug.
I’ve been doing expeditions and adventures for 25 years. I’ve done more self-supported trips than I can even count. But to have somebody who has that understanding is really important. You know, cancer is very isolating. And I felt very alone in my community, at my home, in my professional life. And so to have that hand come up and reach for me was surprisingly helpful for me.
To be able to be a compassionate human is probably one of the greatest gifts that you can give somebody else.
Eric Larsen is a polar explorer and educator. He’s the only person to have skied to both poles and summited Mount Everest in a 365 day period. His book, On Thin Ice: An Epic Final Quest into the Melting Arctic, chronicles what he believes was the last human-powered trek to the North Pole. Learn more about Eric at ericlarsenexplore.com.
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