Climbing for a Cure in North Carolina


Climb for a Cure Stories
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Climb for a Cure is Fight CRC’s cornerstone fundraising event. It started in 2016 with a few survivors and caregivers climbing a mountain, a metaphor for their fight against colorectal cancer. Today, it unites hundreds of survivors, caregivers, and loved ones across the country as they get active and raise funds for research

Joe Bullock and JJ Singleton met in 2021. They’re both from North Carolina are survivors of colorectal cancer. Together, they are legacy hosts Climbing for a Cure in North Carolina.

Joe and JJ refer to their event in Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, as a smaller one. Keep in mind, some of the best things in life come in small packages. The Mount Mitchell event packs a powerful punch, bringing returning survivors, as well as welcoming new climbers, into the fold each year. 

The North Carolina event is perfect if you are to be enveloped and warmly welcomed into the Fight CRC family and community of colorectal cancer survivors, caregivers, and loved ones.

While initially a colorectal cancer diagnosis feels lonely and isolating, the one silver lining of such a devastating disease is the way it unites, connects, and bonds members of the community together in a way you would never expect or imagine. Truly, no one fights colorectal cancer alone. 

Fight Colorectal Cancer is getting ready to kick off its Climb for a Cure Season, which begins Memorial Day Weekend (Friday, May 26, 2023), and spans through Labor Day (Monday, September 4, 2023). Climb for a Cure joins hundreds of Relentless Champions of Hope in the fight against colorectal cancer as they climb and fundraise to support research programs vital to the colorectal cancer community.

Both Joe and JJ are Fight CRC Ambassadors: Joe was in the Ambassador class of 2021, and JJ was in the class of 2022. Joe, a stage III survivor, has been attending and Climb for a Cure since 2020 and hosting community events since 2021. JJ, a stage IV survivor, has been attending and hosting since connecting with Joe in 2021.

Independently, Joe and JJ continue to raise awareness every day whether in person, on social media, or through podcasts and interviews. Together, they are a dynamic duo as legacy hosts for Fight CRC’s Climb for a Cure.

We asked Joe and JJ “all questions Climb” as we head into the 2023 Climb Season.

What does Climb for a Cure mean to each of you personally?

JJ: Climb for a Cure means I’m tackling something that I never thought I was going to be able to do again. There were times when I didn’t think I’d ever be able to walk a half mile on flat ground again. The Climb gives me the motivation and joy of knowing where I came from and where I’m at today. Climb for a Cure is also a platform to give other people who are just starting this cancer journey hope. 

Joe: It is about bringing together the family of survivors. I had gone to Mount Mitchell, as a child growing up in North Carolina. When JJ came onto the scene, Mount Mitchell was a natural place where I wanted to do a Climb event. I said to JJ, “Let’s do a Climb at Mount Mitchell,” and he was all in. And it’s stuck that way for years now.

Can everyone Climb for a Cure at Mount Mitchell?

Joe: What I like about Mount Mitchell is there is a harder, more rugged and rocky path. But also, there is a paved trail. So if we have survivors that might be in a wheelchair, they can go up the paved path and get to the summit. They have that access and ability to get to the summit. There are multiple paths and options that we can take. That’s what I like about Mount Mitchell: It’s very versatile.

For example, last year, I gave the option: We can take the rugged path or we can take the paved path. They wanted the hardest, most difficult path they could go on. Some of us regretted that decision once we were on the path.

"But we all seem to gravitate toward that one rugged path every year because I think there is a sense of surviving the path like we are surviving our cancer."

–Joe Bullock

Joe: We all want to take that challenge of the difficult path. Now sometimes people are unable to take that rugged path because of knee or foot issues or for health reasons, and that’s what’s great about Mount Mitchell because there is that paved path option.

So if someone is unable to do the rugged path, they don’t climb alone. We always figure out how there will be enough people on both paths because no one fights alone, and no one climbs alone. We are a community of climbers. We want to make sure everyone is together in some way during the Climb for a Cure event.

What are the Mount Mitchell paths like? How long is each path?

Joe: The rugged path is about 1.8 miles, but it's so rocky that it takes us about an hour and a half to climb because there are parts of it where you're literally climbing up rocks, so it’s challenging. 

If you take the paved path, you can walk that in about a half hour.

There’s definitely a difference between the two paths. And the nice thing about the different paths is that we all end up at the same summit together. The people taking the paved path usually take the flags up and all the things we need.

It’s really great because we all get to meet together at the top. 

JJ: The two times we did the Climb, I went on the rugged path, but I've been to Mount Mitchell many times where I've taken the paved path. You pull into the parking lot, and it's about .6 of a mile from there to the summit.

Mount Mitchell is good because the rugged path and the paved path meet at about halfway up the paved path, and there's a little sitting area.

The people on the paved path can walk up, hang out at the summit, walk halfway back down to meet us, and then we walk up the final part together.

The Climb is a great supportive community gathering, can you tell us more about that?

Joe: I was having a hard time for some reason during Climb 2022, and Sarah [Broadus, a stage IV survivor and Climb for a Cure participant] and her husband Todd were there too. We were on the rugged path. I remember I was about ready to give up in the middle, because there are some plateaus where you could actually get off the trail if you had to. And so I thought, “Look, I don't know if I can do this whole thing, and I'm gonna get off here, and then I'll have somebody come down and get me or something.” Her husband said, “No, no you need to just get some oxygen in your knees.” So they were talking me through it. Sarah said, “You need to chew some gum and get your heart rhythm set. Get it leveled off, and then you'll be able to do it.” And sure enough, once I got that going, I was able to complete it. 

So we were all rooting each other on through the path this year.

"That’s really what Climb for a Cure is all about. It’s about taking care of each other, and rooting each other on to complete this mission of finishing it together."

–Joe Bullock

Do you know everyone at your Climb for a Cure event? Or are there some people who arrive as strangers and leave as Fight CRC family?

Joe: Well, there are people that we know like Sarah, Michael, and Judy. There is definitely a family that has developed, and we see each other each year at the Climb.

JJ: The first year I had a couple friends come up, and they signed up last year but one of their friends got married in the Bahamas that weekend. I totally understand a trip to the Bahamas over climbing Mount Mitchell. 

But then also there are people who show up from my community that love going on this Climb. They enjoy 20 or 30 mile hikes in the mountains. Here they signed up, and I didn't even know they were climbing until I saw them there.

Is the atmosphere of Climb for a Cure day a mix of surprise party and happy reunion? 

JJ: It’s a surprise, and it also feels good to see them come out and participate in Climb for a Cure because they know it's something that I feel deeply about, especially as an advocate for colorectal cancer.

I appreciate that they all take time out to Climb. They show up on a Saturday morning in the summer right before school starts back, and it is a busy time of year.

“So that they take hours out of their day to participate in something that I feel deeply about, it really means a lot.”

–JJ Singleton

Joe: Last year, Ray Wilson, a survivor, was one of the Chris Ganser Scholarship winners who came to the Mount Mitchell Climb event. He lives in Greensboro, and he could have attended any Climb. He could have gone to California or Colorado, but he chose to come to our little North Carolina Climb.

I was so surprised, and it was pretty incredible. But he said, “Of course, I’m coming to the North Carolina Climb!”

But this is his community, and these are the people he wants to Climb with.

What would you tell someone who was going through chemo and may think Climb for a Cure may be too difficult for them?

JJ: I would tell them to come on out to Climb. Last year, I did the Climb after my 123rd round of chemo.

I was sore, and I didn’t feel like climbing, but the feeling you get afterward makes up for that hour and a half where you're struggling through it.

"It’s also important for people to remember that when they Climb for a Cure, they will never do another more physical activity with more people who understand what they are going through and can help them through it."

–JJ Singleton

This community has been through the same mental and physical challenges. They get it. 

Joe: I remember a couple of years ago – JJ, I think you were on your 103rd chemo treatment. I remember hitting a wall about three-quarters of the way up where it’s the toughest point. It was difficult, and I didn’t want to continue. I just wanted to stop.

I remember thinking to myself, “I just don't want to finish this,” and then I remember thinking of myself, “JJ just had chemo yesterday. What am I complaining about?”

It gave me that push I needed to get up that final part of the climb. But that's just how I felt at the time, that JJ gave me that final push to finish.

How does it feel and what is the impact of bringing the community together for Climb for a Cure?

JJ: It feels amazing. I was not involved in the Fight CRC or colorectal cancer community before COVID because I was in my own head with blinders on. But then going through COVD where everybody got so used to being apart and missing that real human interaction, when we finally got together to do this Climb in 2021, this was probably the first thing I did with a group of more than two or three people in almost two years.

Just a feeling that is kind of hard to explain – that feeling you get after you miss the human connection, especially people who understand what you’ve been going through these last few years. It’s just an incredible feeling.

Joe: It is kind of like that family reunion aspect.

"As patients and survivors, we don't really get a lot of time together throughout the year to see each other, and Climb for a Cure is just a great opportunity for the local groups to get together and have that opportunity to see each other. It’s pretty amazing."

–Joe Bullock

How do you feel the North Carolina Climb event makes a difference? 

JJ: The Mount Mitchell Climb for a Cure event shows that no matter where you are in the country, if you live in a bigger area like the Raleigh–Durham area, or you live in a town of 3,000 people like me, the colorectal cancer community comes there, people see what you're doing, and they understand the impact that you're making. It makes a difference, and they remember, and they donate or show up, and it has an impact on them.

I get such fulfillment out of hosting for Climb for a Cure.

Joe: In North Carolina, we have quite a few national cancer institutes. We have Duke, UNC, and Charlotte, and for us to be able to do something that's this impactful for research and fighting for a cure – that's something that we're standing out for in this state. We have such access in this state and to have a program that we're able to share and fight for, I think is incredible.

Why is Climb for a Cure important for colorectal cancer research?

JJ: Climb for a Cure is important to raise awareness and make people realize that colorectal cancer is a disease on the rise, from the young kids to the older people. Most people don't know that because it's not something people talk about. So to raise funds for them and for a cure is everything.

Joe: Colorectal cancer is one of those cancers that still is not talked enough about. I've been involved with some of the cancer centers in this state, both at Duke and UNC, and I keep hearing that not enough people are talking about colorectal cancer. Not enough survivors are talking about it. So to have a platform is what's needed, and I think [Climb for a Cure] is one of the ways to provide it.

How would you encourage other people to join Climb for a Cure?

JJ: Just make the leap, sign up, go for it, and enjoy it! Don't be nervous. Don't dread it. You might think you are not able to do it physically, but you are going to have people to support you there. So dive into it. It's going to be an amazing experience!

Joe: A lot of times as survivors, we don't know how to advocate. We don't know that there are ways to do that. A platform like Climb for a Cure gives us that opportunity and encourages us to do it for those that are looking for a way to do it. 

And it’s pretty easy. You sign up, and you can just go for a walk. It's very simple, and that’s important.

What is your favorite part about Climb for a Cure? 

JJ: For me, it's definitely making it to the peak, getting up there, and being with the community who made the climb to the peak together. 

I really enjoy taking the picture with the flag; the accomplishment of all that we've been through and that we’re still able to do this is everything; we can say we climbed to the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

Joe: That’s it exactly. And I enjoy the after-party. Last year I said, “JJ, I want to do an after-party,” and we did that at a local brewery and got to have a beer and lunch together, and have that family time that we wanted and to celebrate the accomplishment. I always look forward to that as well, and we’re going to do that again this year.

How did you first become aware of Climb for a Cure?

JJ: It was through Joe because I didn’t know about Fight CRC until I met Joe.

Joe: I became aware after reading about Climb for a Cure and Chris Ganser. I was diagnosed in 2018, and I had read about Climb for a Cure somewhere when I was looking for ways to start advocating after my own survivorship.

Eventually, I connected with Mike Mancini, and that's how I started learning more about Fight CRC and about their Ambassador program and was encouraged to be a part of it.

Are there emotional moments when you’re climbing?

Joe: Let me tell you a funny story. Every year I have what's called the dad shoes: the white tennis shoes. Last year, I was doing a safety talk, and everyone said, “You need to get climb shoes for hiking.”

So I went out and I bought these climb shoes for hiking. And I fell – three times – on the trail. But for the past two years on that trail with my white dad shoes, I had not fallen once. 

It’s like my dad shoes were my superpowers, and last year I didn’t have my superpowers with me on the trail. That was hilarious. I fell three times in the special climb shoes.

JJ: A lot of emotions come over me as I'm climbing. I remember all the people that have had an impact on my life and who are not here anymore due to this disease. 

That helps me power through. The last two Climbs fell during my chemo weeks. If this year’s Climb for a Cure is during my chemo week, I’m still going to do it. I’m still going to climb and honor everyone who has made an impact on me and helped me get to where I am today.

Joe: One thing I noticed last year, we had several people who attended who were friends of someone, but they were impacted by other cancers, and they were all saying, “There's nothing like this. There really isn't.” 

They said they’d never had this feeling before. And these were people from other cancer groups. I just thought them saying “There’s nothing like this” was really impactful.

What do you want people to know about the impact Climb for a Cure has on the colorectal cancer community?

JJ: No matter what I've been through, or I'm currently going through, I'm going to use Climb for a Cure as a platform to help raise money and find a cure for colorectal cancer. 

Hopefully going through all this will help the next generation not have to deal with everything I – and everybody in this colorectal cancer community – have been through. That's the impact that I hope people will see: That we could suffer through chemo, still go on to Climb for a Cure, and still raise money to fight for the future.

Joe: We are climbing for a cure. That’s what we want. That’s what we fight for. That’s what we’re here for. 

We want to see that screening age lowered. We want to see more research. We want to see more clinical trials open up for more patients to survive like JJ and what he’s going through. That’s why it’s important for me to do Climb for a Cure.