Imagine hiking at an altitude of 17,000 to 18,000 feet (5182 – 5486 m) for hours.
You’re exhausted walking back to camp, but then you’re greeted with 100 or more people singing loudly. This is exactly how the guides, porters, cooks, and crew greeted 27 Climb to Fight Cancer climbers on Mt. Kilimanjaro each day they returned from the day’s trek.
Kristin Anderson, one of the climbers in that group, said the singing would go on and on and on, sometimes for 20 minutes, until every one of the 27 climbers in their group was back to camp and dancing along with them.
“You can’t convey how much energy they bring back to you after six to eight hours of hiking when you are exhausted and can’t breathe and everything hurts,” said Anderson.
Anderson is one of 27 bio-tech professionals who went on this climb, every one of them making the summit. A feat rarely seen on Kili.
Anderson said it was so hard, she almost didn’t make it.
“So, I am seven-eighths of the way there and I am this close to giving up because I can’t breathe. It’s just so hard and I am so tired. We have been hiking in the dark up a mountain for six hours and it’s freezing. I can’t feel my toes. I can’t feel my fingers,” she said.
That’s when Anderson said one of the guides picked her up in a bear hug and held her.
“And she just held me for about four minutes until I caught my breath. She said, ‘You have come so far, you are so close, just breathe.’ And then we kept going, and literally in that moment, that’s what kept me going,” said Anderson.
That story mirrors an earlier period in Anderson’s life, when at 28, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
“I remember falling to the floor in tears just so upset,” she said.
But a huge support network of family and friends picked her up.
“I don’t think we cooked for like eight months because every single day someone brought us dinner,” said Anderson.
When treatment robbed her of her hair, she received two wigs. Her husband, Justin Taylor, modeled one with her and that photo of the couple together in wigs — Anderson said it is still one of her favorites.
And her best friend, Joyce, who’d already been through cancer treatment, immediately stepped up to help.
“She emailed me right away and she said, ‘Oh my God, I have all these things that are going to make your life so much better.’ And it was just little things that I never would have thought of,” said Anderson.
Dr. Kristin Anderson and her best friend, Joyce
When Anderson joined this Climb to Fight Cancer Team, Joyce was right there supporting her again with a donation, helping Anderson and her team raise more than $1.5 million for cancer research.
Anderson’s family was right there with her, too. Aunts and relatives started telling her that they too had cancer. One aunt even forwarded all her medical records to Anderson’s doctor to help with her treatment.
“So, they knew what mutation to look for, and so I had genetic testing that they found out I had the same [BRCA mutation], and ever since all my cousins have been tested to find out so they can basically be proactive,” said Anderson.
Originally planning to complete her doctorate and move on to research vaccines, Anderson shifted her focus after her diagnosis to cancer research. She’s now a scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, studying T-cell therapies.
“We’ve had tons of success with this in blood cancers, like leukemia, and now we’re working to make it work in solid tumors like ovarian cancer, pancreas cancer, lung cancer, some of the ones that we really need additional therapeutic options for,” said Anderson.
This is why Anderson, who’d never climbed a mountain before, joined the Climb to Fight Cancer team, to help keep all kinds of cancer research moving forward. Collectively, the team raised more than $1.5 million to fund research, just like Anderson’s.
“I already have four friends who are under 30 who have had either breast or ovarian cancers,” she said.
Dr. Kristin Anderson in treatment for breast cancer
Reflecting on her two difficult journeys, Anderson did find some similarities.
“There were parallels that I found between my cancer journey and my mountain climb. One of the biggest ones was the fact that my cancer journey was unique like everyone’s is, and in mountain climbing everyone’s journey is unique. No two people have the same altitude sickness issues at the same point on the mountain and everyone brings with it different experience, so I see that to be very similar,” she said.
Anderson said both can be very isolating and lonely, yet also uplifting with those who come to your rescue.
“When I was going through cancer, like I mentioned, people came out from everywhere to help and support me. It felt like that on the mountain, too,” said Anderson.
“And every time I struggled on the mountain, I thought about my friends who were going through treatment now or who were struggling with their disease,” said Anderson.
That includes her best friend Joyce.
“She was actually in hospice and passed away the day that I was summiting the mountain, and I didn’t find out until I got down. I was very sad that I hadn’t gotten a chance to say goodbye. She knew the value of what we were doing,” Anderson said, wiping tears from her face.
“She was amazing and I miss her so much.”
Dr. Kristin Anderson (front row, second from left) with the entire Kilimanjaro team