INTERVIEW: Climbers Against Cancer

Lancashire based climber John Ellison has recently launched the website John, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer is using his connections throughout the climbing world to raise money for cancer research charities.

John Ellison and Molly Thompson-Smith having fun in London © Climbers Against Cancer
John Ellison and Molly Thompson-Smith having fun in London
© Climbers Against Cancer

The main cut and thrust of John's idea is to sell T-shirts through the CAC website and you may have noticed a sudden surge of brightly coloured CAC T-shirts being worn by tufa-pinching rock stars across the globe.

"Top climbers from around the world have already offered their support to the campaign by wearing the Climbers Against Cancer clothing and by following their lead and purchasing a T-shirt from the website shop you will all be contributing to the fight against cancer. All proceeds from sales or donations will go towards International Cancer Research Charities from each of the five continents." said John on the CAC website.

Natalie Berry sporting her CAC T-shirt © Climbers Against Cancer
Natalie Berry sporting her CAC T-shirt
© Climbers Against Cancer

In the following interview by Natalie Berry, we find out more about John Ellison and his Climbers Against Cancer organisation:

"You can't do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth."

John Ellison is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary story to share. If you haven't heard of Climbers Against Cancer, you will very likely be hearing more about it or even seeing a swarm of brightly coloured t-shirts bearing 'CAC' on the front very shortly.

I first met John as a wide-eyed 12 year old at the Bouldering World Cup at the NEC in Birmingham almost 10 years ago now. I was watching the competitors in awe, nervously clutching an autograph book in my hand. A smiling man with thick-rimmed glasses and rosy cheeks came up to me and started asking how I was. At this point, I admit I had no idea who John was – he knew my name from competitions but I didn't know him, yet already at the age of 12 I could sense that he was a very special guy. He sneaked me into isolation (he was a judge, so he had the power!) and took me to see some of the world's best climbers and introduced me to them. He didn't introduce them to me, but me to them. As a 12 year old kid, you can imagine how special this was. I was flabbergasted – I was meeting these amazing climbers thanks to the kind-hearted nature of a man I had just met.

This is just one of the many ways which John has touched other peoples' lives and now, remarkably – despite discovering that he is terminally ill –  he remains the John that we all knew before despite his diagnosis. What's more, his story is now reaching people from all over the world who are inspired by his attitude and are willing to help in the fight against cancer – an illness which will affect everyone at some point in their life, whether it be directly or indirectly.

Here is an interview with the man himself, John Ellison. (Or Father John, as he is known to myself and some of the GB Juniors!) 

Tell us a bit about yourself John!

I am in my 40s and have always been involved in sport. I started climbing in my 20s and was also very into football skiing, and running. When I got injured I stopped football when in my 30′s. For the last 10 years I've been involved in climbing competitions through judging at local and national competitions and more recently working as jury president at international events and I've been assisting with the GB Team for 3 years now. I am a single Dad with an 18 year old daughter, Charlie.

CAC at Santa Linya - spot the rock stars with Sasha DiGiulian in a pink CAC T-shirt © Climbers Against Cancer
CAC at Santa Linya - spot the rock stars with Sasha DiGiulian in a pink CAC T-shirt
© Climbers Against Cancer

What makes you tick?

Life, basically! I have always enjoyed life – living every day as it comes. It is fortunate that I am who I am, personality-wise. Some people would find it really difficult to deal with the situation I am in but I think my positive outlook on life really helps me. I adore meeting people and love communication and travelling. Half of family live in Switzerland so I have always had a strong connection with Europe and other countries and cultures.I also love music, shopping and clothes. I suppose I swim against the tide a bit with my love for shopping and have had some funny looks at times for my fashion sense (bright red Doc Martens anyone?!) Socialising is very important to me and I've always enjoyed having a variety of friends from around the world.

You have mentioned that the climbing scene is very much like an extended family for you – in what ways is this true?

At climbing events it is always like a visit to see your family – there are people of all ages from all corners of the country or even the world! You become very involved with people at the competitions, after meeting people for over 10 years repeatedly. Through being involved with the GB team and other teams – you get to know people quickly. I feel that climbing is a unique sport – everyone is so supportive. You can sense a desire to see other people do well. no matter where you are from! Talking to everyone of all levels with no hang-ups. It was at the World Championships in Bercy, Paris in September where I really felt this – a big happy family! I believe that if you can leave a bit of yourself in people you meet then that's a great gift to give. 

Happiness is reciprocal! If you have a laugh then it's a rolling ball  - if you are happy then those around you will be too. Someone once said to me that if one person bleeds, those around them do too, and it's been clear since my diagnosis that if something affects one person then it's amazing how people can be brought together.

 Who or what inspires you?

This is a difficult one for me. My mother inspired me towards being open and outgoing. I have always said to my daughter: never look up to people and never look down on them, but always admire. I guess I am inspired by people who put effort into things, give things up to be successful and those who are very personable. I don't like arrogance. Yeah, this is a tricky one for me.

It would be nice for people to look back and go « yeah, you were a nice guy. » I don't mean this as a reward but rather as just a way of knowing that you did your best to be pleasant and kind and leave the world having been respectful and considerate of others – I think this is something I would like my daughter to know, that her father was an OK guy! So it's not for myself I guess, but for those that know you, a bit of a weird one to explain. I always think it is for others to judge you and in time they will decide how you have affected their lives. Bravery is also a very admirable trait to my mind. 

"The strength of a man is not his muscles but what is in his heart"

What is your proudest moment?

Definitely the birth of my daughter, Charlie. She is the light of my life and my rock to lean on. She is beautiful, honest, humble, happy, hard- working and very sociable – what more could a father ask for?

Adam Ondra and Inka Matouskova supporting CAC © Climbers Against Cancer
Adam Ondra and Inka Matouskova supporting CAC
© Climbers Against Cancer

Describe yourself in 3 words!

Honest. Friendly. Outgoing. (I'll add Loyal and Chatterbox for good measure!) 

What are you hoping to achieve through the launch of the Climbers Against Cancer charity?

There are two sides to all this – if you are told there is no cure, you are not doing it for yourself. Time is not on my side but equally I'm not giving in. One day we may be able to cure it. The aim is to raise money around the world – money will be distributed internationally. If it is popular enough it will fund resources around the world, not just in the UK. The other aspect is awareness, as (not so much with friends now) but with some people there is an element of shock "Cancer...ooh". So many people have changed their attitude around me – both kids and adults. If we can make cancer become a little more acceptable to talk about by raising awareness then we will have more chance of defeating it – at the moment it's all a bit hush-hush and a dark, aggressive topic. As an example, I was sat in the waiting room at the cancer unit in the hospital a while back with 5 ladies in their 70s. We got talking and one of them said to me afterwards "You won't realise this but when I came in here I was depressed, yet I walked out on cloud 9 because of you." She told me that she found my story and my approach inspirational. I thought I was fortunate to have been able to cause such a reaction and thought if that can happen to one person, maybe something bigger can happen on a larger scale – CAC was born from this theory!

Tell us the story leading up to CAC from your diagnosis

I spent the first few months visiting family and learning how to deal with the news. We raised £3000 at CWIF for Macmilan Cancer Support with the assistance of Graeme Alderson (cheers Graeme!). On the back of that I realised that we could do so much more. I thought it was a kind of chicken and egg situation – if we have a cure then we don't really need Macmillan. In May I started raising money for Cancer Research – so far I've reached £17,500! Then in Bercy in September I looked around me and thought of the CAC idea. People like Shauna (Coxsey) Graeme (Alderson), Loic (Timmermans) and Laura (Michelard) were amongst the first I told about CAC and there was all positivity, no negativity! Currently I am also busy giving talks at Cancer Support groups, on local radio and press interviews. It's not really me to put myself out into the spotlight but if I can help others that would be fantastic. I just want to put a positive spin on things!

What has the reaction towards CAC been so far and what do you make of it?

In 3 months it's reached all over the world – it's gone global! My bank account manager thinks I'm mad. "What would normally take years you're organising in 3 months and also you are terminally ill!" All the more reason to do it then, I suppose!  Why has nobody done this before? Many people have asked that but I think it's due to the fact that not many people have been in this situation in the climbing world or perhaps handle the news differently. It's not that I feel I owe anyone but I feel like I have stuff to give back whilst I can. It's been an overwhelming response. I was just in Spain and Daila Ojeda and Chris Sharma told me that they were very inspired by CAC and my story. I felt humbled and honoured to be told this by two climbers that I really admire!

You told me about the logo on the back of the tshirt and how it has a special meaning – do tell us more!

I had a few ideas, the designer gave me 40 or 50 logos to look at. I used the internet to make a font. I wanted to use colours that are trendy in the outdoor market at the moment – orange, blue and green. The designer called me one day and said « I don't believe it! » It turned out that if you twist and turn the 'C' around, it creates glasses like the ones I wear! The designer said you can spend ages finding the perfect logo – but this one was special and personal and had been found by chance! I think it shows a personal side to cancer and represents everyone that is ill – you don't have to be a climber to support CAC. Climbing is metaphorical, you can be dying of cancer and climbing against adversity, climbing towards a goal or ambition. It's about ascension and involves everyone - climbers and friends and family. I also noticed recently that the logo reads as « DAD » when you look in the mirror - another personal touch that wasn't planned! I would also like to mention that postage is included in the t-shirt price and that nobody is profiting from this cause but the charity itself. 

What would you like people to remember you as? What do you wish to leave behind?

I would like people to be able to say that I made them laugh and gave people good memories. As the saying goes « You can't do anything about the length of your life but you can do something about it's width and depth » and this is what I hope to achieve in sharing my passion for life with those around me!

Thanks for your support everyone – it gives me a lot of strength! 

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24 Jan, 2013
my dad died of cancer just a few weeks ago, climbing and the people involved in it have really kepy me afloat through diffilcut times... my dad was an amazing man and a wonderful friend.. i think this idea is great ..i've bought a few of the t shirts.. like the colours too :o) and like how it says DAD when you look in the mirror :o) please let us all know if there are any climbing or actvity type events we could get involved in to help raise more money big smiles PPG xx
24 Jan, 2013
I too think this is a great idea and am inspired by the website. I'll definitely be buying t shirts. Anyone know if the sizes are roomy or not as I tend to fall between sizes?
24 Jan, 2013
24 Jan, 2013
Great, thanks for the response. Unfortunately the website doesn't seem to be working for me when I try to place an order. I'll keep checking and hopefully it will be ok soon.
24 Jan, 2013
thumbs up for this, definitely need to raise awareness for this horrid disease, my well wishes go out to you John Ellison and you have my support.
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