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Surviving the jungle

Cancer survivor Mickey Grosman holds a snake in the Amazon Rainforest, during a 5,000 mile South America trek.

Cancer survivor Mickey Grosman holds a snake in the Amazon Rainforest, during a 5,000 mile South America trek.

Tim Freed

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This story is a part one of a three-part series that follows Orlando resident Mickey Grosman as he journeys across South America to inspire cancer patients.

Mickey Grosman had only been asleep for a few hours when he is jolted awake by voices shouting outside his tent. Buckets of rain are beating down on the green tarp he had been sleeping under. Scrambling out of his hammock, Grosman steps into ankle-high water, rips open the flap of his tent and is immediately drenched by the Amazon Rainforest. The sun is down in Ecuador’s Sumaco National Park, the site of a devastating flash flood – and Grosman’s campsite.

Grosman’s experience in the Israeli military kicks in as he orders his seven campmates to grab as many supplies as they can and head for their makeshift raft made of balsa wood on the nearby river. The water slowly rises as the group frantically cuts their tarps free and hangs electrical equipment on branches.

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Google

A custom Google Map projects Grosman’s South American journey from coast to coast.The 5,000-mile expedition was divided into 12 legs that cut through the mountains of Peru and the jungles of Brazil. GPS tracking devices allowed people from around the world to monitor his progress on the expedition’s website, where they could also donate money that would go directly to the Ronald McDonald House and the BASE Camp Children’s Cancer Foundation.

Carrying as much as they can, the travelers swim through water up to their necks to reach a raft – some losing their boots along the way. With everyone on board, Grosman unsheathes a machete hung from his waist and slashes the rope tethering the raft to a mangrove tree, sending the shivering team and their vessel rushing down the Payamino River and into the pitch-black darkness of the night.

Orlando resident Mickey Grosman and his group of explorers are not even a quarter of the way through their 5,000-mile Amazon 5000 expedition, a journey from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast of South America meant to inspire cancer patients and raise money to fight the disease.

Starting in Pedernales, Ecuador on May 15, 2012, the expedition was split up into 12 legs that cut through the mountains of Peru to the jungles of Brazil. Grosman’s GPS tracking devices allowed people from around the world to monitor his progress on the expedition’s website, where they could also donate money that would go directly to the Ronald McDonald House and the BASE Camp Children’s Cancer Foundation.

Today, Grosman still vividly remembers the night a flash flood nearly took the lives of he and his group early on in the trip.

“Everyone was scared,” he Grosman said. “I was concerned myself, because if I lose one person over there, he’s dead.”

With plans to make a documentary of the journey, Grosman conducted a casting call online beforehand and found nine Americans, including a videographer, to join him and switch off at the 12 checkpoints set in advance.

Over the course of the expedition, Grosman would also go through 11 indigenous volunteers, including two more videographers.

Joining Grosman for the second, third and fourth leg was Kevin Jackson, the owner of a T-shirt printing business in Port Charlotte. Having met Grosman during a survivalist trip in the Florida Everglades back in 2010, Jackson couldn’t help but point out not only the Israeli American’s determination and strength, but the fact that he was nearly twice his age.

“Mickey, for being 65 years old, really caught me by surprise,” Jackson said. “I figured we’d be going out there, walking for a few hours and then taking a break, but there were days where we went 24 miles and climbed 3,000 or 4,000 feet.

“I don’t know how that man does it, to be honest with you.”

Age is but a number to Grosman, a man with wrinkle-laden skin surrounding his brown eyes still burning with excitement and youth.

After serving many years in the Israeli special forces, he learned how to survive in the wilderness and found a passion for honing those skills, often testing them in Peru, Colombia and Brazil.

Immigrating to the United States 24 years ago, Grosman started a company called Eco-Planet Adventure, which takes customers on trips each year to learn how to survive in the wilderness for 15 days.

Grosman calls himself a survivalist, constantly testing his physical limits against nature, but this title holds true for another reason: his battle with skin cancer in 2010.

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COURTESY OF MICKEY GROSMAN

“The doctor told me ‘Listen, melanoma is a very viscous and aggressive cancer,” said Grosman, who had cancer in his nose, left cheek and neck. “Probably in three months you’ll be dead. Or you could live; there’s a 10 to 15 percent chance that it doesn’t spread through your body. He didn’t promise me nothing.”

In need of surgery to remove the cancer from his face, Grosman was sent to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa where he went through three operations.

The surgeries proved to be successful in removing the cancer, but Grosman was still crushed by what he had seen at the center.

“When I was there getting the treatment, I saw people suffering from cancer firsthand – young guys, kids, babies and adults,” Grosman said. “The time is ticking with them; they’re fighting.

“Because I do all of the extreme things in my life, like adventure sports, I decided to do something to encourage and inspire all of those people fighting against cancer,” he said. “I’m telling them that, even if you have cancer, you can do whatever you want. Never give up.”

While he was still recovering in the hospital from his ordeal, Grosman began planning for the expedition that had been on his bucket list for years.

During the year and a half preceding the start of the trek, Grosman and his wife Noga put together the path he would take, visiting South America and setting up the checkpoints the team would follow.

Though concerned for her husband’s safety, Noga knew that this cause was too important for him not to go through with.

“A lot of the time I wanted to pull out of this, but then I said to myself ‘I cannot stop this man, he made a decision,’” said Noga, who constantly tracked Grosman and communicated with him via satellite phone. “I knew that it was very risky and very dangerous.”

“I took into consideration that he might not be coming back.”

Cancer was all too familiar to Grosman long before he learned that he had melanoma, a fact that only made his decision to go that more unshakeable.

“In my family, my sister-in-law, my mother, my mother-in-law and my brother all died from cancer,” he said. “The expedition is dedicated to all of those people fighting cancer and the people who die from cancer.”

Back to South America: Atop the East Andes in the heart of Ecuador, Grosman stands on a ridge more than 10,000 feet in the air. He looks across the broad landscape of the steep mountains wrapped in the cloud forest that he had been navigating for weeks. The area had been untouched by mankind, until this day.

At the top of the ridge, Grosman turns around to face the members of his team as a video camera rolls. The hardened adventurer pulls out a PVC pipe wrapped in a trash bag from his 60-pound backpack. After opening it, he removes two large scrolls from the uncorked tube and unrolls them.

Grosman reads the scrolls aloud for the camera, listing the names of 100 cancer victims and patients still fighting the disease who submitted their names to the list, a tribute to the mission of the expedition.

As he finishes reading, Grosman places the scrolls back in the tube and seals the caps with glue.

“Open it whenever there is a cure for cancer,” says Grosman to the camera.

Grosman then plants the sealed tube as a time capsule in a gaping hole in a nearby tree carved with “Amazon 5000” across it.

Grosman knew that he still faced thousands of miles before his journey was over, and that the challenges had only just begun – the team would ultimately lose about half their equipment due to the flood they would face in Sumaco National Park just a few weeks later.

Standing on the ridge, as Grosman reflects on the cause he walks roughly 20 miles each day for, his burning brown eyes fill with tears, masked by the constant rainfall.

He’ll hold on to the GPS coordinates of the tree.

Just in case.