I recently returned from climbing the world’s highest freestanding mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. I was part of Survivor Summit, a team of 16 climbers that included cancer survivors and advocates from the cancer community.
Everyone who participated has a very compelling story. Today, I want to share more about Robert Masson, M.D., an internationally recognized neurosurgeon who has performed more than 11,000 microsurgical spine procedures. He is amongst the most experienced artificial cervical disc surgeons in North America and 100 percent of his practice is devoted to minimally invasive microsurgical spine surgery.
Dr. Masson is the founder of the NeuroSpine Institute, a global referral center for rapid recovery spine health solutions, and his patients include amateur, professional and Olympic athletes from all over the world. He’s also a kindred spirit and a regular contributor to our many media projects at Bolder Broadcasting. “One of my personal goals is the Growing Bolder goal,” he says. “I totally embrace the Growing Bolder ethos to keep pushing, to keep charging, despite our personal setbacks and our personal problems. We are all capable of so much more than we think we are.”
I tell you all of this because Dr. Masson became a spine patient himself when a wakeboarding injury threatened to leave him disabled. “About two years ago, I herniated a disc in my neck and had a spinal cord compressing disc herniation. Over the course of 18 months, I gradually started losing function in my right hand.”
Masson is one of the world’s leading advocates for aggressive prehabilitation and rehabilitation for the spine surgery patient, and when it was apparent that he would need surgery, he immediately went to work. “I spent 6 months preparing for the trauma of artificial disc surgery on my neck. I worked out aggressively while isolating the injury, losing 20 pounds and improving my overall strength and conditioning.”
His surgery was performed by NSI associate, Dr. Mitchell Supler, who inserted a ProDisc-C Total Replacement System into Masson’s neck. The ProDisc line of artificial discs is a high-tech alternative to fusion that enables the patient the opportunity to return to full activity. Dr. Masson performed the first ProDisc-C artificial disc surgery in Florida several years ago and has done hundreds since. “I had great faith in Dr. Supler and in the ProDisc-C,” Masson says. “But I always tell my patients that the ultimate success of an operation is in their hands. They have the ability to achieve extreme recovery and return to almost whatever activity they want, if they are willing to work for it.”
The results of Masson’s prehabilitation efforts were immediately apparent. “I started my training day one of my surgery. I walked 3 miles just 5 hours post-op. Day two I walked 5 miles. Day three I ran three miles. I was back in the gym day 4. I ended up never missing a day of work and never ever canceling a case. The prehab guaranteed that I wouldn’t become disabled by the experience.”
Running around the block is one thing, climbing the world’s highest freestanding mountain just months after surgery is something altogether different.
Dr. Masson joined Survivor Summit to support LIVESTRONG and to honor both his sister Callie, a 20-year cancer survivor, and his father, who passed away recently after a long battle with prostate cancer. But he also wanted to test his own theories on the potential for extreme recovery and make a personal statement about the power of belief. “As a Neurosurgeon who’s dealt with cancer in my family and in my practice for 25 years, the one thing that’s crystal clear to me is that when you’re afflicted with one of these very serious diseases, the only thing that guarantees a bad result is a negative attitude, a negative preparation, a fatalistic approach. I do what I do for the exception not for the statistics. I think that if you do everything you possibly can to maximize your recovery, to maximize your journey and your fight, the odds of being the exception, of being that person who overcomes is so much greater. One of our challenges is to continue to inspire people to keep fighting, even when it seems hopeless.”
It took seven increasingly difficult days to reach the 19,341 foot summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We hiked in volcanic ash and through mud, rain and snow. We climbed over large boulders and up steep and slippery inclines. We slept in small tents in sub-freezing temperatures. Despite a growing case of hypoxia in the oxygen-deprived air, aching muscles, blistered feet, nausea, pounding headaches and constant coughing, we pressed on. We were climbing for the 32 million cancer survivors worldwide and nothing was going to stop us.
Just before reaching the summit, Dr. Masson paused to spread some of his father’s ashes. “We all miss my dad a lot,” he said quietly. “He fought cancer for 13 years. He put up a hell of a fight. My dad was one of a kind in so many ways.” With that, he scattered the ashes on a glorious morning on Mt. Kilimanjaro. A few minutes later we were at the very top, the roof of Africa, and raised an honor flag containing the names of those we were hiking for. The flag contained the names of Masson’s sister, Callie and his dad.
With the first part of his mission complete, Dr. Masson began descending with the rest of the team. It took seven days to get to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and less than two days to get down. The descent was at least as hard as the ascent. Nine grueling days in very difficult conditions and Dr. Masson’s artificial disc was a non-issue. No pain. No discomfort. No weakness. Mission accomplished. “In truth, I’m better than I was before being injured. I’ve regained the ability to do what I love. I personally have proven the potential for extreme recovery. This adventure has been the perfect metaphor for how difficult any meaningful path is and it’s a symbolic gesture to the idea of just putting one foot in front of the other. Keep moving towards your goal, your vision and your dreams. And with that relentlessness, that preparation, that vision, anything is possible. You just have to keep Growing Bolder.”