Now or Never

70-year-old cancer patient fulfils dream to climb CN Tower

After months of cancer treatments and surgeries, this Toronto mother and grandmother set out to prove to her doctor and to herself that she is still strong.

Grandmother with terminal cancer climbs the CN Tower

6 years ago
Duration 0:56
After months of cancer treatments and surgeries, Fatima Hrienko set out to prove to her doctor and to herself that she is still strong - by climbing the CN tower.

At 70, Fatima Hrienko doesn't look sick. But the soft tissue sarcoma in her right leg has metastasized to her right lung and continues to spread.

In the past 18 months, Hrienko has had surgery to remove tumours in her right leg and lungs. (Nick Hrienko)
In the past year and a half, Hrienko has endured 25 radiation treatments and surgery to remove tumours in her right leg and lungs. She's lost part of her hamstring muscle and lung tissue in the process. 

Despite all this, the Priceville, Ontario woman remained determined to climb the steps of Toronto's CN Tower, the tallest freestanding structure in the Western Hemisphere.

"If I live 10 days and I live them to the fullest, I'm much better off than if I have 100 years just existing sad," said Hrienko. "Enjoy to the max the time that you have."

Preparing to climb 1,776 steps to the top

The CN Tower only opens its stairway to the public two weekends each year. Once in the spring for the World Wildlife Fund Canada's CN Tower Climb for Nature, and once in the fall.

Hrienko and daughter Tamara Colaizzi didn't want to wait, fearing Hrienko's condition could worsen, so they registered for the April 7 climb.

"When I told my family, they really thought I was nuts," said Hrienko. "One of my sisters said: 'You know you're strong. You don't have to prove it to anybody else. Don't do this.' They think I'm going to melt out there and I know I'm not."

Hrienko practiced by climbing the 113 steps at Colaizzi's office building 16 times over. It took her an hour and 15 minutes.

"She blew us all away with her practice," said Colaizzi. "She did it with complete grace and strength. And I thought: 'OK. We can totally do this'."

Getting close! Tamara and Fatima near the finish line of their CN Tower climb. (CBC / Jeffrey Vallis)

Speedy finish time spoils family surprise

Colaizzi and her sisters Natasha Papades and Alexandra Hrienko-Chilcott coordinated to surprise Hrienko at the finish line with flowers and T-shirts emblazoned with "Team Fatima".

"We were trying to surprise my Mom, but she was so fast that my poor sisters didn't get here in time," said Colaizzi.

Hrienko climbed 1,776 steps in 41 minutes and 18 seconds, beating her personal goal of finishing within an hour. Meanwhile, her daughters and their three children were still driving the 100 kilometres from Guelph, Ontario to downtown Toronto.

"We were expecting her to still be walking up the stairs," said Hrienko-Chilcott. "We thought we had another 45 minutes maybe, but she already beat her time. It's amazing."

Fatima celebrates with family members after completing her climb. (Derek Colaizzi)

The sisters and their children eventually met up with Hrienko and husband Nick, as well as Colaizzi, husband Derek, and their two children.

"We're really proud of her. She's a strong lady, always has been," said Papades. "She's been through several obstacles in her life, this one probably being the biggest. I just thought it was really important that we showed her support."

Inspiring others to overcome obstacles

Together, Hrienko and Colaizzi raised $540 for conservation, adding to the $1.44 million raised by 7,500 participants at this year's event.

"I would like to do it again," said Hrienko. "If I'm alive next year, we'll come again."

And she's not alone. Daughter Natasha, niece Nadia, sister Regina, and grandson Joe all plan to join Hrienko and Colaizzi at next year's climb.

"I hope if people have challenges, it doesn't matter what they are, that they don't let the challenges run their life," said Hrienko. "They can still be happy and peppy and upbeat and just enjoy life every day. I hope people do that. Life is a lot easier."

Fatima, sixth from right, smiles with her family after climbing the CN Tower. (Jeffrey Vallis / Derek Colaizzi)