Cancer survivor says pilgrimage inspired his plan to walk around the world

25 May 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

A cancer survivor from Surrey, B.C. has one big ambition. He wants travel across the globe – on foot.

“My dream is to walk across the world to share my story and the stories of others,” said Matthew McKinnon, as he geared up for a walk from Seattle to Washington, D.C., this spring.

Though he didn’t see it coming back then, McKinnon traces his dream of walking across the world to Grade 11, when it was discovered he had a brain tumour. He underwent two surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation before his Grade 12 graduation.

“It led me, in a bit of a roundabout way, because it wasn’t actually my cancer that brought me back to my faith, but it was the circumstances that followed.”

Nearly five years after his cancer diagnosis, while finishing up classes in public relations at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, he felt an itch to make the Camino pilgrimage in Spain.

“I felt this desire to go,” he said.

Without being able to explain why, he started making plans and packing bags for a 30-day, 830-kilometre trek from France to Spain.

“When I finally purchased the ticket, without a reason, I realized: I could be walking into Santiago de Compostela, the final spot, on (the anniversary of) the day I was diagnosed.”

Suddenly, his spontaneous Camino pilgrimage held a lot more meaning.

“It’s an interesting thing for people to hear: celebrating the day I was diagnosed. Which I do, every year,” said McKinnon.

“It was that day that put me on the path that I’m on now. It was that day that stopped me from going into engineering at BCIT, which I think I would have dreaded because it is so intense. It led me to the passion that I have now, which is public speaking, fundraising, and working with non-profits.”

In the midst of his studies, McKinnon also suffered two car accidents and a mental health challenge that landed him in a hospital ward. Looking back, he says those events strengthened his faith and shaped who he is now.

Though raised in a Catholic family, “I had never really developed my own personal relationship, my own faith. It was always the family’s faith,” said McKinnon.

“It was after that experience of mental health challenges and spending two and a half weeks on a ward at Surrey Memorial Hospital that I was drawn back.”

After his life-changing Camino pilgrimage, McKinnon found an outlet where his interests and passions intersected.

“I like to think of it as my mission,” to travel and tell his story and the stories of others.

His next big trip will be across the U.S. with Crossroads, a pro-life organization that hosts an annual walk in which three groups walk simultaneously across the northern, central, or southern states and meet in Washington, D.C. (They also have a walk across Canada, but have cancelled it for 2018).

He will join the northern group in walking across the U.S. and joining pro-life rally in America’s capital June 11.

“The pro-life conversation has always been very close to me,” said McKinnon. “I’m the youngest of six, but I could have been the youngest of a lot more.”

When he was three or four years old, his mother had a miscarriage. He was there when they buried his youngest sibling, whom they named Mark.

“I remember seeing him in the shoebox, and seeing his face, his arms, his hands, and that is probably one of the earliest memories I have that has never left me,” said McKinnon.

More recently, a woman he knows also suffered a miscarriage. “I was there to put the lid on the casket, and again, I saw the fingers, I saw the face, I saw the person there,” he said.

“When I have a conversation about the pro-life/pro-choice (debate), I don’t come from the point of being a Catholic. I come from the point of saying: ‘This is life.’ Anyone, religious or not, can understand that.”

He feels like it’s his mission to speak publicly about cancer, mental health, and the unborn, wherever his feet take him. In the fall, he plans to study for a certificate in non-governmental, non-profit work.