Why this cancer researcher (and survivor) is climbing Kilimanjaro to raise money to study cancer

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View of Kilimanjaro from Amboseli National Park, Kenya. (Sergey Pesterev Photo)

Kristin Anderson has already fought cancer in more ways than one. She’s a cancer survivor whose battle with breast cancer started when she was just 28 years old and pursuing a doctorate in immunology. And as a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, she’s investigating ways to use our body’s own immune system to attack solid tumors.

Kristin Anderson. (Kristin Anderson Photo)

But Anderson has another plan to fight the disease. She’s climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as part of a fundraising effort that has raised $1.4 million and drawn 28 climbers, several of whom are biotech executives and investors.

The effort is led by Luke Timmerman, a veteran biotech journalist and founder of the Timmerman Report. Timmerman previously climbed Mount Everest in a similar effort and raised $340,000 in donations for Seattle’s Fred Hutch.

Timmerman picked Kilimanjaro with the idea that he could raise far more money with a group of climbers than he could on his own. That thesis bore out, and the group easily beat their $1 million goal. The money will go to supporting some of the most high-risk, high-reward research at Fred Hutch. To support Anderson and the other climbers, you can get all the details at Climb to Fight Cancer.

On the latest episode of the GeekWire Health Tech podcast, Anderson talks about how her own fight with breast cancer led her to pursue a career in cancer research — and her plan for conquering Mount Kilimanjaro.

Listen to the episode below or subscribe to GeekWire Health Tech in your favorite podcast app, and read on for highlights.

Anderson was still pursuing her doctorate when she was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer that was driven by a genetic mutation. Luckily, her doctors were able to eradicate all signs of the tumor with a chemotherapy drug that targeted her cancer cells.

“After my cancer experience, realizing that researchers were the reason I was alive, made me really want to go into that type of research myself,” she said.

The young researcher changed her focus from viruses and pathogens to cancer. Her work has focused on T cells, which are involved in the immune system and can be used to effectively fight blood cancers. The problem is that solid tumors have ways of stopping T cells from working. Anderson is studying how and why that happens.

Anderson’s journey to Kilimanjaro started with a random encounter at Fred Hutch. “There was one Christmas where I was working over the holiday and had simply gone down to go get coffee. And some strange person in the coffee shop basically made eye contact and said, “Hey .. are you a researcher?” Anderson said.

The stranger was Timmerman, who kept her in mind later on when he was recruiting climbers for the Kilimanjaro trip. Anderson had never climbed a mountain on this scale, but the opportunity to do an epic trip to fund important research — not to mention build connections with the other climbers — was too good to pass up.

Since signing on, Anderson has been training whenever she can find the time. Due to the demands of her work, that mostly translates to hiking on a treadmill with a weighted vest at home. Occasionally, she’ll put on a mask that limits the flow of air to simulate high altitude training. “It sort of looks like Bane from the Batman movies,” Anderson said. Her adolescent kids “got freaked out” by the mask, so they let her train in peace now. 

Anderson and the others will start the climb this month for a journey that will last around seven days. She’s keeping her goals realistic and won’t be trying to set any records.

“People that I have reached out to when I’m nervous have said, ‘Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you can be the last one up. As long as you get to the top, that’s the most important part,’” she said.

Anderson is bringing two posters with her on the climb: one with names of a bunch of people who’ve donated to her climb, and one with names of people close to her who battled cancer or currently have the disease. The goal is to take a picture of their names at the top of the mountain.

“As I’m struggling — feeling hungover because that’s what altitude sickness, I’m told, feels like — I’m going to channel them and think about how so many of them are going through really hard stuff right now,” Anderson said. “And climbing a mountain is not nearly as hard as what they’re doing, so I’m hoping that will help me get to the top.”

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