Ten Long Years to Climb to the Top

Tony Leo from from Malaysia and living in Singapore inspired The Max Foundation to host our 2017 Max Global Experience in Malaysia to climb Mt. Kinabalu. Tony’s story explains how this climb closes a 10-year-journey of discovering and living beyond his cancer diagnosis.

10 years ago, for my first attempt to climb Mount Kinabalu, I felt prepared. I was a 27-year old living an active lifestyle of soccer and gym and I just started out being a full time musician and music teacher. I had everything going for me and I thought I could have conquered Mount Kinabalu easily when I went with some teachers and students of a music school.

The first couple of kilometers proved really tough and I began to realize something might be wrong with my body – especially my lungs. It could not only be the altitude as I had no energy to even lift a leg up or get enough air; the strangeness of it engulfed me and it took me a very long 12-hours climb to Laban Rata, the basecamp where we would stay the night.

I was very tired and baffled at why it was so difficult. I cried in that darkness when I saw the grounds of Laban Rata. I slept that night after telling myself maybe I shouldn’t continue. But when everyone started waking up to attempt the summit at 1:30 AM, I thought let’s give it a try regardless. I was doing okay until my fear of heights gripped me and I walked back to the camp in the dark, alone and dejected after failing to get over my fear.

When I reached back home, I immediately had a checkup and that’s how I found out my body is wrecked with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). No wonder I struggled so much, my body lacks red blood cells and that’s why it is so tough for me when I tried climbing the mountain.

My hopes were not completely dashed as I was exuberant to find out I can receive very expensive medicinal treatment at no cost thanks to the help of a patient support group called The Max Foundation. Feeling so grateful for the help, I wrote a song, entitled You for Max who I felt paved the way for me and for The Max Foundation CEO, Pat Garcia-Gonzalez. I was soon on the way to recovery and was encouraged to have met many other CML patients and their caregivers as well as the staffs of The Max Family.

Last November, Pat and I recorded a conversation about my story and when we were almost done, Pat had the brilliant idea to climb Mount Kinabalu after revealing to her I failed reaching the summit for the 2nd time that same year! We would do it as part of her birthday fundraising efforts for The Max Foundation. This idea birthed a plan to include another 21 climbers: patients, advocates, partners and even a representative from Novartis!

Ten years later, after gaining life-saving treatment for my CML through The Max Foundation, and feeling much better (and happier, and thus, fatter), I was ready to take on Kinabalu again.

On this climb, the all too familiar tracks, the all too familiar sign boards and scenery greeted me but, thank God, this time we had beautiful weather. I am much more prepared (been hiking and cycling 2-3 times weekly) and I had a game plan: to take each step whether up or down, slow and steady and to enjoy the view. The climb was interestingly easy and enjoyable this time while I kept my breathing regulated and I managed to reach Laban Rata this time in six hours with lots of energy and laughter to spare!

The next day in the early morning, I applied the same technique and I slowly but surely climbed up and reached the last station within an hour. I continued climbing and reached the summit in the next 2 hours! 😄

Oh, the view is beautiful at the peak. I was in awe of the creation of this quiet, steady mountain but it cannot match the feeling of exuberance I had. Finally, after 10 years, I managed to reach the summit!

I am eternally grateful to God who helped me along the way and to my family and friends and especially Pat, everyone at The Max Foundation, The Max Family patient group in Malaysia, the other patients and partners who cheered for me along the way.

Oh, the feeling of conquering the mountain finally is answered but this time, with so much more respect to the ever steady mountain of life that has taught me to be humble, alerting me to the web of support that exists and feeling the love of unity with similar purpose!

Thank you for letting me experience, learn and enjoy the process!

Maybe another song might come out of this “mountain”…

Hear from others about their Mount Kinabalu climb See more from our Mt. Kinabalu trip

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The Maximize Life Blog shares stories and updates from The Max Foundation. Follow along at https://themaxfoundation.org/blog/.