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Eric Larsen, leading polar explorer, survives terminal cancer diagnosis and dares to test his limits again

Polar explorer's toughest climb
After uphill battle with cancer, world-renowned polar explorer makes grand return 06:46

Eric Larsen was recently packing for a trip he thought he'd never take: a journey to the North Pole.

As one of the world's leading polar explorers, the 51-year-old has been to the North Pole six times. But he thought he wouldn't be able to travel again after being told he had Stage 4 colon cancer that was terminal.

The prognosis, however, was wrong. His cancer was survivable, although the treatment was debilitating. He had six rounds of chemotherapy, as well as radiation, and 14 inches of his colon were removed.

He said he woke up at night, crying in pain, after having surgery to remove the cancerous area of his colon. But he had a secret weapon: years of adventure, which taught him how to survive in the harshest conditions.   

"I've fallen through the ice. I've been stalked by polar bears. You know, I've been in a lot of very precarious situations over the years," he said. "And you get a little bit of a gallows humor with that, you know, in the sense like, 'Oh, that was close. Let's just keep going.'"

In 2006, Larsen and a partner became the first to journey to the North Pole in the summer. Four years later, he became the first to journey to the North Pole, South Pole and Mount Everest in a year.

In 2014, he and a teammate completed an unsupported ground expedition to the North Pole. It is believed no one else will be able to make that trip because the Arctic Ocean is rapidly melting, making it too dangerous to cross.

Despite the extreme nature of his adventures, he calls it one of the most boring sports in history. 

"You're traveling across a big, vast, white nothingness," he said. "Oftentimes, I've spent days and weeks in conditions where the visibility is like being on the inside of a ping pong ball. You can't even see the horizon."

Cancer is what finally forced him to stop. On top of everything else, one of the chemo drugs diminished what he calls his superpower: his ability to withstand the cold. He said he would have to wear a hat and gloves to get ice out of his freezer. 

Still, he never lost his passion for exploring.

"What I do is just part of who I am," he said. "I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh, why am I going to do this?' I just do it. And so it's just how I was built. I gave up asking myself why a long time ago."

He is now going back to the North Pole as a guide, helping clients reach their dreams. Breaking records just isn't that important anymore, he said. Lifting others up is what matters.

But he said he wrestles with the idea of returning to exploring instead of being home. 

"I don't like being away from my family as much anymore," he said. "But to be able to go back to a place that has been such an important part of my life, to see it again when I thought I would never do anything again, for me it feels like the right thing to do."

Even after it all, he said he is still searching for himself – and for answers. 

"I used to go on these trips, and I thought if I could, if I could do the hardest thing for as long as I could, I would have … an epiphany, where it all came clear that I would know everything. And what I've realized is that's never going to happen," he said. 

"I'm still looking for the answers that I know I'll never find. But the search has value and the effort has value in my mind, and coming back has value," he added.

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