It’s been 20 years since “Big Jeff” Walker passed away from late-stage kidney cancer, yet the man continues to save lives.
That’s because Walker made his hiking partner and friend Brian Mahon promise him two things before he died: that he’d never climb another mountain without him, and to get the word out about cancer prevention and early detection.
Walker, who worked for a small logging company in the Columbia Basin, stood at 6 feet 5 inches and left behind about 7 pounds of ashes, Mahon said. His remains have been sprinkled at the summit of Mount Everest twice, as well as the South Pole and Mount McKinley.
“He had a huge heart, unbridled energy and was so generous with his time,” Mahon said.
This past Thursday, the 60-year-old Longview resident scaled three peaks in less than 30 hours in honor of his friend, who died on July 28, 1997. Nineteen years ago, a younger Mahon accomplished the same feat — climbing Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mount St. Helens consecutively — on the one-year anniversary of his friend’s death.
Mahon said that every year he tries to scatter some of Walker’s ashes on around four to six mountains he’s never climbed before.
In the intervening years, Mahon has carried out Walker’s wish. He has spoken to thousands of people about the importance of cancer screenings.
Walker’s dying words also eventually worked to save Mahon’s life — and his son’s.
When Mahon’s 10-year-old son began experiencing vision problems about 13 years ago, his wife suggested a screening that revealed brain cancer. Because the disease was detected early, Mahon’s son was treated and cured; he’s now pursuing a writing and publishing career in New York City.
In December 2015, Mahon also learned he had aggressive prostate cancer in his own body.
“My prostate was trying to kill me,” he said. “Jeff saved my life.”
A day later Mahon was on the operating table having the tumor removed.
Mahon is a vivid example of someone who practices what they preach. With the help of a small grant, the now-retired physician assistant at a local family practice center developed the Cancer Prevention 101 Challenge. The presentation has been tailored to high school students, U.S. Forest Service officers and firefighters.
The idea is to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health and screen for cancers that are most common based on age, gender and lifestyle.
“I would love to give the oncologists and cancer specialists a little less business,” Mahon jokes.
Mahon also developed a cancer screen guide called the “Cancer Prevention Manual,” which is fashioned after an auto manual. Mahon said he wanted to create an easy-to-digest guide aimed at both men and women that covered how to screen for all different kinds of cancer.
“We do regular maintenance on cars, trucks, SUVs,” Mahon said. “But we’re not doing nearly enough regular maintenance on our own selves.”
Mahon said he’s motivated by the fact that of the roughly 500,000 cancer-related deaths in the United States every year, roughly half are preventable — either through early detection or lifestyle changes.
“Most of what young people need to do, they can do in their own home,” he said.
Today, Mahon will introduce Walker’s remains to another new mountain: Mount Olympus on the Olympic Peninsula.
“I want him back, but I can’t have him back, so I do anything I can to help his wishes continue to be honored,” Mahon said.