Dr. Richard Deming and Monsignor Frank Bognanno pose for a photo on their trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in early January. The pastor from Des Moines, Iowa, was in the group of 17 cancer survivors that Dr. Deming, a Des Moines oncologist, organized fo r the trip. The group reached the 19,340-foot summit Jan. 10. (CNS photo/John Richard courtesy of Mercy Medical Center)
Priest who survived cancer takes on challenge of Mount Kilimanjaro
DES MOINES, Iowa – A pastor from the Des Moines Diocese has experienced a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with the hope that it will bring others to God.
Monsignor Frank Bognanno, 72 and pastor of Christ the King Parish in Des Moines since 2000, is among a group of cancer survivors who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, a trip organized by Des Moines oncologist Dr. Richard Deming and led by world triathlete Charlie Wittmack, of St. Augustin Parish in Des Moines.
The group of 17 cancer survivors and 20 caregivers reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro late in the afternoon of Jan. 10, thus becoming participants in the world’s highest “relay for life” at 19,340 feet.
A priest for nearly 47 years, Monsignor Bognanno had completed triathlons in the past and continued to run and walk regularly.
But in the six weeks before he began the climb, his fitness regimen changed to prepare him to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Deming, who is the director of the Cancer Center at Mercy Medical Center, led a group to Mount Everest last April, and has said that climbing a mountain is a metaphor that many cancer survivors use to describe their cancer experience.
It has been 17 years since Monsignor Bognanno’s initial diagnosis of prostate cancer, from which he experienced full recovery. Three years ago the cancer reappeared, but at a level so low that the approach had been to simply continue monitoring things.
He’d been seeing Deming for treatment, who at one point asked Monsignor Bognanno to join the cancer survivor expedition.
“I was a little hesitant at first,” the priest said. “I mean, my idea of camping is a Motel 6 with black and white television.”
While it is not abnormal to find Monsignor Bognanno taking vacation during the first part of January, it is not customary for the objective to be scaling Africa’s tallest mountain.
He joined people from across the country taking part in the trip, including his niece, Anna Corulli from Augusta, Ga.
From around the Des Moines Diocese, Deacon Dave Bartemes of St. Pius X Parish in Urbandale and Tim Meyer of Holy Trinity in Des Moines were among those on the trek, and Wittmack was the expedition leader.
Deacon Bartemes is in his third remission since his 2008 prostate cancer diagnosis. As the oldest member of the group at 73, he told the participant who is documenting the trip that he is more than ready to embark to Africa.
“Life is not about storing treasure,” he said in response to what his mantra might be.
Deacon Bartemes saw mention of the trip in the paper and right away went to his computer to apply, said his wife, Cora Bartemes.
“He never had any hesitation,” she said. “It was something that he immediately wanted to do.”
Tim Meyer’s son Matthew, an account executive in Mercy Medical Center’s public relations and marketing department in Des Moines, encouraged his father to learn more about Deming’s trip to Mount Everest in 2011. Then, Tim Meyer was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had surgery Nov. 3, trained and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
“It’s been a very positive experience for him,” Matthew Meyer said.
The trip and its preparation have meant his father hasn’t had to experience the feeling of being alone that many can have with a cancer diagnosis.
“It’s been great to watch this group of people embrace their cancer diagnosis and really use it to motivate themselves and motivate each other,” said Meyer.
Monsignor Bognanno has moved on from his original hesitation toward taking the trip to embracing the expedition for its potential to evangelize. He’ll begin radiation treatment upon return to Des Moines.
Monsignor Bognanno will be celebrating Mass each day for the group on the expedition. He’s also giving the experience up to God for the success of his parish’s upcoming mission, and he looks forward to reaching out to anyone in the group who may be in spiritual need.
“I’m more excited about it,” he said. “I look upon it almost like a penance.”
“I just think it’s going to be a spiritual experience for me,” said Monsignor Bognanno before the trip. “I look at it as a chance to get closer to God and, maybe for people on the trip, coming closer to God, too.”
Editor’s Note: A blog and photos from the expedition are posted at www.aboveandbeyondcancer.org.
Copyright © 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops