Tom Davenport is not your average cancer survivor. A self-proclaimed frontiersman, Davenport is a traveler born and bred. For a man who honeymooned in the Arctic Circle and dragged 40-pound tires behind himself while running to stay in shape, it only made sense that after conquering the southern frontier of his colon, he would head to the actual South Pole in Antarctica, the southernmost point on the surface of the Earth.
"I always intended to travel based on my experiences growing up. I always liked working in frontier environments. That's why I was attracted to working in places like Africa. Working in a frontier environment allows exploring," said Davenport, who has been working for the World Bank for the past several years.
Tom's father, Allen Davenport, was a civil engineer at a university. As a world expert on wind engineering, traveling was a large part of his job. Originally, Tom followed his father's footsteps and studied engineering at Canada University of West Ontario. However, galvanized by his experiences with the antiapartheid movement in South Africa, he shifted to politics and economics.
"When I was 17 or 18, I finished high school early and I saved up money. I went to live with my South African relatives and go to university there. I stopped off and spent a little time in the Congo and then was in South Africa during apartheid. My relatives were very strongly involved in the anti-apartheid movement; I got a firsthand view on the injustices that were going on both politically as well as economically, and that really sparked a strong interest in getting involved in development," explained Davenport.
After getting his masters in political economy at the London School of Economics, Davenport spent six months hitchhiking and being a journalist in South Africa covering Zimbabwe elections and economic sanctions.
Upon returning to the American continent, he worked as a consultant to a Canadian high-tech business that wanted to export overseas. Shortly thereafter, Davenport joined the Canadian Foreign Service and was posted to Washington as a liaison with the World Bank group for three years, during which time he met his wife of 20 years, Gail Davenport. "I got married when finished Canadian Foreign Service. It was clear that I wanted to marry this gal and stay in the Washington area."
Tom and Gail have one son, Ryan, whose passion for traveling is superseded by his passion from hockey. When asked if Ryan would even consider joining his dad on his arctic explorations, Davenport jested, "If they had hockey rink down there, he might consider it."
Summing up his career thus far, Davenport commented, "The sense of working in new environments which are sort of on the frontier in terms of change and development, I found extremely fascinating, and I particularly enjoy doing it from the vantage point of the field. Working in headquarters is important but less fulfilling."
Davenport's adventures with the World Bank were temporarily put on hold when he was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer in May 2006. He was 46 years old at the time.
As his symptoms got progressively worse over a number of months, his wife insisted that he go to the doctor. Initially, suspecting that the blood in his stools was related to all of his traveling, Davenport's doctor wanted to prescribe Flagyl©, "something you take when you've got bad diarrhea, something I've experienced a number of times from traveling to Africa and Bangladesh," explained Davenport.
However, after a month of not improving, his wife insisted he get a colonoscopy.
Davenport's diagnosis of Stage III colon cancer was shocking; he had no family history of the disease and was in excellent health. He immediately researched and contacted the best doctors in the field. "I shopped around extensively. A lot of them said I was going to have to live with a permanent colostomy," said Davenport.
Although the cancer had spread throughout his colon and to the surrounding lymph nodes, Davenport maintained a strong sense of hope. "As soon as I heard it [his chances] was greater than 50-50, that was a release," he commented.
He had his surgery at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City and received his radiation and chemotherapy locally in the D.C. area. "I remember about two days after I was diagnosed, I was talking to a close friend diagnosed with a prostate cancer a year before, and he immediately asked me how much I knew about the disease and if I been on the web.
I was still absorbing the news and figuring out how I wanted to proceed. He quickly encouraged me to become much more proactive and aggressive," said Davenport, whose strongest advice for colon cancer patients is, "you have to be your own advocate and an intelligent consumer. You have to be quite aggressive in finding out what your situation is and where to get the best treatment."
Davenport recommends hitting the scientific studies to better understand radiation and chemotherapy. He suggested that patients look closely at the reputation of the surgeons and the institutions they work for. The ideal doctor is well-regarded, young enough to be aware of latest advances and old enough to have the appropriate amount of experience.
"I never thought about death being a possibility; I was very optimistic. I have a naturally positive outlook on things. I felt fairly confident that if I found the right people to treat me and I got the right treatments, things would be fine and I had the strength to get through it," said Davenport.
Since then, family matters a great deal more to him. He explained that his wife was extremely supportive, "She's the voice of reason. She's very practical but at the same time she was very positive. "His parents and siblings were also a huge support. He recommended that the family and friends of colorectal cancer patients focus on staying positive.
Davenport also stressed that maintaining routines was crucial for him. He only missed one day of work during his chemotherapy treatment, though he did limit his traveling.
Since his diagnosis, he has changed his lifestyle only slightly, abstaining from wine and alcohol during the week, eating less red meat and more fruits and vegetables. "Staying fit is a focus now a little more than before. Most days I run or work out," said Davenport. He claims to be less stressed now, particularly at work. "If there's a silver lining, it's that the cancer has put [work] into perspective now. I no longer work weekends or work late. I spend the extra time with my family, taking care of my body, going on vacations," said Davenport.
His expedition to the South Pole falls under the "extra time" category. "It's always been a great romantic interest. It really started when I was in grade school and I was reading about explorers and being fascinated with them," explained Davenport.
His first outdoor challenge was when he was 15 years old: he cycled 500 miles to Montreal. Four years ago, he ran a polar training program around the Arctic Circle in Canada where he gained valuable skills: how to survive -40 degree below temperatures, how to set up camp, how to cook meals, and how to ski and carry provisions. "I was really excited by it," said Davenport.
To make sure he was up for a trip to the coldest place on the planet, Davenport and his brother did a hiking trip to Alaska, to the Yukon territories. For eight days they hiked the gold-mining route known as the Chilkoot Trail from the coast of Alaska to mountains of the Yukon. He had literally finished chemo a week before and still had a temporary colostomy at the time of the trip. "It was a good test to see where my head was. That worked out very well – except for bad blisters on my feet from too-small boots," he joked.
In February of last year, Davenport participated in the 2008 Canadian ski marathon that covered 160 kilometers over two days. He crashed on the second day and broke his skis, so he couldn't finish the course. After the ski marathon, he began his training for the 80-day trek to the South Pole. He worked out between 1.5 and 2.5 hours every day. He pulled tires five times a week for an hour in the morning.
Upon successfully completing the trip, Davenport concluded, "it was great to actually complete what I had said I wanted to do. That was very gratifying. It's given me confidence to do other things in the future." He added, "One of the big lessons learned, similar to cancer experience, is the best way of dealing with big challenges is to break them into pieces…The only way of dealing...is creating intermediate milestones...on particularly bad days, I just need to get through tomorrow."
Davenport learned that the best thing to do when you receive a cancer diagnosis is to look to the future while also really living in the present. "You get diagnosed, you get treated, and you move on. And you move on and do things that you want to do, don't put things off," said Davenport.
For Davenport, the future may hold another arctic challenge. "The logical thing after the South Pole is the North Pole." Logical? Only if you maintain the heart of an adventurer and the attitude of a survivor. Already having conquered stage 3 colon cancer and traveled 1,500 miles across Antarctica, one could speculate that Mr. Tom Davenport is up for the journey. "Up there, there are issues of polar bears. It's a different challenge."