Orcas doctor to climb to Mount Everest Base Camp in campaign to raise $1m for cancer research

An Orcas Island man is tackling the unknown head-on.

Samuel Blackman, MD, PhD, is part of a team that is raising $1 million for cancer research as it prepares to climb to Mount Everest Base Camp. Blackman is petrified of heights and has never embarked on a trek of this magnitude.

“So much of our life is about conquering fears,” he said. “Your life becomes better if you can grow and overcome a self-imposed limit. This is pushing me very, very far out of my comfort zone.”

Blackman was invited by Seattle-based biotech journalist Luke Timmerman to join him and 19 other biotech professionals on the trek to raise money for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center along the way. Each participant is tasked with bringing in $50,000. Blackman is currently at $41,000. To donate, visit https://lnkd.in/gA3DDJi4.

For those who give $500 or more, Blackman will put a message of the donor’s choice on a traditional Tibetan prayer flag and hang it at the base of Mount Everest.

“It’s as close to the roof of the world as I can safely get it,” he said.

Blackman calls Fred Hutch, which is based in Seattle, “one of the best institutions” globally.

“The leukemia research at Fred Hutch is some of the best in the world,” he said. “We should all feel lucky that we have it as part of our corner of the world here.”

Timmerman is an avid mountaineer whose life was changed when he made the Everest trip several years ago, raising $1.5 million for cancer research. Since then, Blackman says Timmerman has been challenging others in his industry to join him.

“What kept coming up for me is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” he said. “And when you get to a certain age that phrase has a very different resonance.”

While in medical school, Blackman chose to specialize in pediatric oncology after working in an ICU unit with children recovering from brain cancer.

”There was something not only remarkable about the patients and their families, I realized I was the best doctor I could be when taking care of kids at their sickest — I can really be the type of doctor I envisioned being. It chose me as much as I chose it,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Blackman transitioned to cancer drug development. Four years ago he started his own company, Day One BIopharmaceuticals, to focus specifically on pediatric cancer treatment. He now oversees a staff of 70 and is nearing the finish line on obtaining the very first FDA-approved drug for children with brain tumors. Blackman has built his company while working remotely from Orcas Island.

In November 2020, he and his wife Julie McNeill and their 14-year-old daughter Anika became full-time residents of the island. For five years, they owned a cabin at Eagle Lake, which they visited throughout the year.

“It felt like the right place for us when the world was getting very wobbly (at the start of the pandemic). After a few months, it became clear I could do my work just as well from my home on Orcas. We wanted to commit to the community,” said Blackman, who is also a board member of the Orcas Library.

The family sold their Seattle home and purchased a permanent residence on the island. Anika attends OASIS at the public school and McNeill, a former nurse anesthetist, is opening a structural integration bodywork practice.

Blackman and his fellow expedition members fly out on March 23 for Kathmandu, Nepal. Then the group will begin its 18-day trip that will culminate in ascending 18,000 feet. To prepare, he’s been riding his Peloton bike and hiking in the North Cascades, Turtleback and Moran State Park.

“It’s not going to be easy. I’ve been working hard to whip myself back into shape for this,” Blackman said. “The discomfort I will feel is nothing compared to what my patients have experienced.”