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Hiking the Appalachian Trail for Cancer Research: A Q&A with Dan Harris

June 21, 2018

Dan Harris’ life has been touched by cancer. As a survivor of two bouts of cancer—testicular and lung—and having lost friends to the disease, Harris decided to take action by fundraising for the Cancer Research Institute. He joined forces with fellow hiker Randy Forrest, whose family has also been affected by cancer, to turn their respective 2018 thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail into charity hikes. We had a chance to speak with Harris as he hikes the Appalachian Trail for his CRI fundraiser, Thru-Hiking With Scars. He shares details about his incredible journey and offers helpful tips on how to host a successful fundraiser. 

Tell us more about your hike and how you prepared for it.

One year prior to beginning the 2,190.6 mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I began to do research on the physical, mental, and technical requirements for successfully completing such a long journey. I was living in Istanbul, Turkey at the time and I was isolated from the trail and hikers with current experience managing a thru-hike, so I began reading books on the subject, including Balancing On Blue by Keith “Fozzy” Foskett, The Thru-Hikers’ Secret by M.E. “Postcard” Hughes, and Take a Thru-Hike by Jessica “Dixie” Mills. I also began watching YouTube channels on thru-hiking, and engaging hikers on WhiteBlaze and other forums.

As I learned and developed a budget and approach to my thru-hike, I began to purchase equipment and started hiking in the Belgrad Forest three days a week. It was due to the diversity of opinion and valuable insights provided on YouTube channels that I decided to add my own voice and created the Thru-hiking with Scars channel, in order to document my own experiences preparing for and conducting this journey.

It was also at this time that I decided to make my hike a tribute to my oncologist, Dr. Edward P. Gelmann, deputy director of clinical research at the Herbert Irving Cancer Center in New York City, and, separately, to start a fundraiser for the Cancer Research Institute.

You’re currently on the Appalachian Trail. What’s the hardest part and what’s the best part of your hike?

Although the trail is physically challenging and long hours of solitude is mentally challenging, putting one foot in front of the other and hiking the required 15-20 miles a day is the easiest part of the hike. The weather has posed the greatest challenge to the hike, with a brutally cold winter and unusually wet spring.

Dan hiking the Appalachian Trail

Why did you choose to raise money for the Cancer Research Institute?

At 26, I was diagnosed with and successfully treated for testicular cancer, and again at age 39 for lung cancer. In both instances I benefited from access to state-of-the-art research facilities and programs. Shortly prior to beginning my hike preparations, my wife and I lost a friend to breast cancer and another close friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

These devastating events caused me to consider the extraordinary challenges faced by our medical community in conducting research and developing the next generation of cancer treatment for the most challenging types of cancer, in an era of diminishing federal funding for advanced research. Thus, my priority was to raise money for advanced cancer research and, equally important, to add my small contribution to an organization and community dedicated to efficiency and impact.

In my research I discovered the Cancer Research Institute, which was dedicated specifically to advanced cancer research and heralded for its cost efficiency as a charity.

What feedback have you gotten about your journey?

Whether disbelief, wonderment, or support, all of the feedback I have received has been positive. Friends, family, other hikers, YouTube channel subscribers, and people met along the trail have all been incredibly important to my success, in bolstering my resolve on challenging days, or providing counsel and feedback on technical or physical issues as they have arisen during my journey.

What words of advice do you have for people planning their own fundraisers, especially those raising money through endurance events?

Start early and establish a network of supporters and the administrative process for raising and donating funds prior to beginning the charity event. In my instance, I created a YouTube channel with the intent of generating advertising revenue, a Patreon account for monthly subscriptions, and a funding page with CRI for single, monthly, or milestone donations, with all revenue going to CRI.

Secondly, my advice is to get the word out early, through as many personal and professional networks as possible. The blogging and vlogging communities are a great target audience, with a common interest, as are professional networking sites such as LinkedIn. Additionally, word of mouth by self, family, and friends can be greatly enhanced by providing interviews to media organizations covering the event.

The added benefit to generating awareness and interest to your charity event is greatly expanding your base of support in successfully completing the journey, even in the face of the inevitable challenges you will face.

In the end, believe in yourself and the cause to which you have committed yourself, and others will be motivated to do so by your leadership.

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