Dr. Kristin Anderson was completing her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota when she got the news, and time stopped.
“When you have a moment so vivid that the details around you are forever imprinted in your memory; that’s what it was like to receive the call that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer,” Anderson said.
At 28 years old, Anderson had just found out she had an aggressive type of breast cancer. The case was extremely unique, both because of the characteristics and mutations of the disease, and because of Anderson’s young age.
Luckily for Anderson, she was studying immunology — how your immune system protects you from disease — and was surrounded by medical experts in her studies and in her support system. Though she had to stop herself from going down the rabbit hole of researching her own possible outcomes in her medical textbooks, she was situated in a way that provided her expert advice and information about cutting-edge research.
A team of medical experts determined a best course treatment for Anderson: She would go through chemotherapy prior to surgery, and was treated with an experimental medication that was recently approved for human use. It was the latest drug developed by a team of researchers to fight and defeat cancer; the most recent medical breakthrough.
When Anderson went in for surgery after her chemotherapy treatment, the tumor was gone.
“That drug was literally the thing that saved my life,” Anderson said.
The researchers who worked on this drug served as an inspiration to the budding scientist, and, after this life-changing experience, Anderson shifted her course of study.
“It was only after I had cancer that I realized how valuable my experience both in immunology and as a patient have been, so that’s what inspired me to merge the two and go into immunotherapy and start studying how you could use the immune system to kill cancer.”
She now is a post-doctoral fellow at Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center developing T-cell therapy to fight both ovarian and pancreatic cancers, diseases that she is personally at risk for due to the abnormal mutation of the breast cancer she contracted. To pay it forward to the drug that saved her life years prior, she is now developing a new type of treatment that will save countless others in the future.
Anderson has dedicated her career to defeating cancer, and nothing can stand in her way — not even a towering mountain.
This summer, Anderson was one of 27 people to summit Mount Kilamanjaro as a fundraising effort to support cancer research. Anderson attended as a representative from Fred Hutch.
The funds that this event raised would directly benefit Anderson’s research. Fred Hutch had put forward goals of strongly supporting immunotherapy research and early career scientists. As an early career scientist conducting immunotherapy research, Anderson was the perfect representative.
“I was so honored to be invited,” Anderson said. “Climbing a mountain, raising this kind of money for cancer research, and getting to network with these really amazing people in the biotech/pharma sector who all care as much about getting rid of cancer as us scientists do. It was just such an awesome opportunity that there was no way I was going to say no to that.”
She trained for months prior to the journey, in which she spent any free time she could spare from her busy life and career climbing the foothills of Mount Rainier (her only previous mountain climbing experience thus far) and putting her treadmill on the highest elevation it would go.
Looking back on her experience, Anderson reflected that the experience was both extremely gratifying and extremely difficult.
“It was so hard,” Anderson said. “And I’ve done hard stuff. I’ve went through cancer. But climbing a mountain is really hard.”
The trek lasted seven days in total — five and a half days to the top, and a day and a half to come back down.
“There’s this rush of fulfillment (at the summit), and you feel like you’ve succeeded,” Anderson said. “It didn’t feel real.”
But its existence was confirmed in the funds raised through this philanthropic effort: More than $1.5 million had been dedicated to cancer research.
This climb was integral to funding research like Anderson’s, she explained. Scientific breakthroughs require many different types of funding, as only some are funded through government grants, and those investments are made in therapies that have little to no risk. For experimental science — the kind that implements new thinking and pushes the envelope forward — other funding is required. Philanthropic giving is often what makes these breakthroughs possible.
“We look for money in a lot of places,” Anderson said. “And money that comes from things like the climb really launch new ideas and make them a reality.”
Her cutting-edge research will have access to the money raised, make progress to prove it is a solid investment, and then become eligible for government grants. The process is a long and thorough one, but Anderson hopes that the treatments she’s developing today will pay it forward for future successes in battling cancer.