Layton cancer survivor taking on Everest

Wednesday , April 05, 2017 - 5:00 AM

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

Later this month, if all goes as planned, Layton resident Jon “Sticks” Platten will be standing at Everest Base Camp in Nepal, staring up at the world’s tallest mountain.

Note we said “tallest.” Because Mount Everest is certainly not the biggest mountain Platten has ever faced. For that, he’d probably go with his life-threatening rectal cancer diagnosis from 2015.

And actually, come to think of it, Everest isn’t even the second-biggest mountain the 58-year-old has encountered. That honor likely goes to the time, back in his mid-20s, when Platten was homeless and contemplating suicide.

On Tuesday, April 11, Platten climbs on an airplane bound for Kathmandu. He and 69 other hikers will embark on a 70-mile round-trip trek — starting at 7,000 feet and climbing to 17,600 feet — to the base of Mount Everest. While there, the hikers will display nearly 3,000 Tibetan prayer flags, each dedicated to a particular cancer patient. Most of the flags will be left there as a “final resting place”; some will be taken on to the summit.

The trip is an outgrowth of a program created by the Radiating Hope Society, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit climbing organization dedicated to improving radiation oncology care around the world. Platten’s radiation oncologist, Dr. Brandon Fisher, is co-founder and president of the society.

“This is really just a cover for Dr. Fisher to feel good about climbing mountains,” Ogden Regional Medical Center administrator Mark Adams joked at a recent farewell reception for Fisher and Platten. Adams will also be joining the group on its trip.

Radiating Hope

Fisher and a climbing partner formed Radiating Hope seven years ago, after discovering there were no radiation oncology medical missions where they could volunteer their services. The reason for that lack of medical missions? Many developing countries have little or no radiation equipment.

So, Fisher’s organization takes used radiation equipment donated by U.S. hospitals, refurbishes it and ships it to hospitals in developing parts of the world.

But equipment is only part of the story, according to Fisher. Radiating Hope sponsors climbs on many of the world’s highest mountains, aimed at raising money in this country and raising awareness in developing nations. Fisher says having survivors like Platten accompany the climbing team shows foreign governments and their citizens that — with proper treatment — there is life after cancer.

Prayer flags

The trip to Everest Base Camp is also the culmination of a seven-year program called the Prayer Flag Project. Climbers from Radiating Hope Society have been soliciting donations for Tibetan prayer flags in honor of loved ones with cancer. Many of these flags have been displayed atop the highest mountains in the world, and they will now be left at Everest.

Last May, breast cancer survivor Molly Froerer, of Eden, accompanied Fisher’s Radiating Hope Society in a climb of 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

• RELATED: Huntsville cancer survivor set to climb Mount Kilimanjaro

Fisher will be meeting Platten and the others from the Radiating Hope team at Everest Base Camp for a prayer ceremony involving the flags. He will then remain there six weeks as he and three others take some of the flags and make an attempt on the summit.

Platten returns to Utah on April 28.

‘Saved my life’

Platten was born and raised just outside Washington, D.C., in Alexandria, Virginia. He played sports all through school, including at T.C. Williams High School, the setting for the 2000 movie “Remember the Titans.”

After high school, Platten attended Brigham Young University for a year, then served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Ventura, California. Upon returning, he pursued a career in acting, eventually appearing in film, television and voic-eover work. He was a shirtless model in a Levi’s button-fly commercial, and appeared as Cop in Pageant in the 1989 movie “Halloween 5.” 

Platten says his first film was a small part in 1983’s “A Killer in the Family,” starring Robert Mitchum. He played a camper killed by Stuart Margolin’s character.

“After filming ‘A Killer in the Family,’ I went back to St. George and ended up being homeless for a while,” Platten said.

He lived behind the “big Dixie Rock” from October to mid-January one year, and spent his days walking around, looking for work.

“When it got really cold, I’d sneak into town and sleep in someone’s storage unit,” Platten said. “I was actually contemplating suicide at the time, if this is what life was going to be like.”

One day, as he thought about ending his life, Platten says, he was walking across the campus of what was then Dixie College when he met a student.

“This kid started a conversation with me and says, ‘You’ve got a great voice, you should be in radio,’ ” Platten recalls. “I told him I wasn’t even in school, and he said I should go talk to the dean.”

Folks at the college came up with the funds to put Platten through school.

“I was 26 at the time,” he said. “They literally saved my life.”

After graduation, Platten spent a number of years in radio broadcasting in St. George before moving to the Salt Lake City area. He’s currently working as an accountant for JCPenney. He and his wife, Leslie, have a 16-year-old daughter.

What does Platten’s daughter think about his adventure?

“She just says ‘Come back alive,’ ” he said.

In addition to being a drummer — hence the “Sticks” nickname — Platten enjoys bodybuilding, lifting weights, teaching martial arts and playing basketball. He also referees high school basketball games.

The ‘mass’

For Platten, his biggest mountain of a challenge began in 2014.

“I was into bodybuilding, heavily,” he said. “I got up to 226.8 pounds, then in 2014 I started losing weight gradually. I thought that was weird, because I wasn’t doing anything to lose it. Then I started having bowel issues.”

Platten’s wife tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he kept putting it off. Finally, he relented and went in for a physical. The doctor recommended a colonoscopy, which Platten had in January 2015.

“They found a ‘mass,’ is what the doctor called it,” recalls Leslie Platten, tears in her eyes. “They weren’t actually able to perform the colonoscopy, because they couldn’t get past that mass.”

When the biopsy results came back, the news wasn’t good. It was a malignant tumor. And when doctors removed the tumor, they also found an infected mass above the tumor.

“The doctor said it was so bad that he almost decided to sew me back up and just leave it there,” Platten said. “The tumor was really bad, and the infection made it difficult, but luckily the Lord’s hand was in it — I’m a firm believer in that. They were able to get the tumor and the infection.”

Platten faced 28 days of radiation, and 43 straight days of chemotherapy. But in the end, he says, it was all worth it. Platten finished up his chemotherapy at the end of 2015, and about seven months ago got the “all-clear” from his doctors. Now, he has to go in every two years for a colonoscopy.

“I’m lifting weights, playing basketball, officiating high school ball — I do everything I did before,” he said. “Nothing stops me now. Except for Leslie.”

Trip of a lifetime

Leslie Platten admits she had her reservations about her husband going to Everest Base Camp, but she also knows he’s a fighter who can do just about anything he puts his mind to.

“I told him, ‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You should do it,’ ” she said. “Of course, it made me feel good that doctors and nurses would be there, too.”

The trip of a lifetime doesn’t come without sacrifices. Platten will be missing both his wedding anniversary (April 18) and his wife’s birthday (April 24). He’ll also miss his father’s 89th birthday (April 20).

The trip is also something of a financial sacrifice. Ogden Regional Medical Center is sponsoring about $5,000 of Platten’s trip, but he has to raise the rest — which he estimates at about $3,500. A GoFundMe account has been set up at https://www.gofundme.com/cancer-survivor-mount-everest-climb to help defray the cost of Platten’s trip. So far, it’s raised about $1,600.

And once Everest is in the rear-view mirror, what’s next?

“Everybody has been so touched with these prayer flags, we’ll start it over,” Fisher said. “We’ll climb to various summits around the world, and in five years we’ll go back to Everest Base Camp again.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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