Northwestern alum seeks greater heights for cancer research


Source: Alexander Pancoe

Alexander Pancoe (Weinberg ’09) holds a flag for Lurie Children’s Hospital at the summit of Mount Vinson in Antarctica. Pancoe raised $320,000 to donate to pediatric brain tumor research.

Caitlin Chen, Reporter

The weather looked great 13,000 feet up.

Alexander Pancoe (Weinberg ’09) and his mountaineering group, expecting to reach the summit of Antarctica’s Mount Vinson the next day, had brought enough freeze-dried food to last a couple of days.

Suddenly, a storm blew in, and with the 60 mph winds, the temperature dropped to minus 50 degrees. The mountaineering group was trapped for four days, forced to survive off a cache they had found of smoked salmon and salami from the ’90s.

“I left my iPad down at low camp, and then we were stuck there for four days,” Pancoe said. “I literally started rereading text messages on my phone. … Like, it drives you insane.”

Four days later, the group reached the top, where Pancoe posed with the three flags he always carries with him on climbs — one for Northwestern, one for Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and one for the Chicago Cubs.

Vinson is one of the seven mountains in the Explorers Grand Slam, which Pancoe plans to complete to raise money for Lurie’s. The challenge will require him to climb the highest mountains on each of the seven continents and ski the North and South Poles.

Now 31, Pancoe, grandson of NU donors Arthur and Gladys Pancoe, was a rising Weinberg sophomore when he was first diagnosed with a brain tumor. After months of headaches that consistently grew in intensity, occasionally resulting in temporary paralysis, his mother eventually forced him to get an MRI at Children’s Memorial Hospital, which is now called Lurie Children’s Hospital.

When the scans arrived, they showed a growth on his cerebellum. Dr. Tadanori Tomita, the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Lurie’s, removed the tumor, which turned out to be benign.

“(After the surgery), joking, he was saying ‘I’ll pay you back, doc,’” Tomita said. “Now, he is.”

Just over a year ago, Pancoe, who now works in Chicago, successfully summited Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountains on their respective continents. Soon after, he decided to try to complete the Explorers Grand Slam.

Pancoe pays for the trips and training out of pocket, so the $320,000 he has raised so far through social media, his website and friends and family is entirely going to pediatric brain tumor research. He said he hopes to eventually raise $1 million in donations for Tomita’s research by May 2019.

“At first, to be frank, I thought it was crazy,” said C.J. Bacher (Communication ’08, ’09), Pancoe’s best friend and a former NU quarterback. “I think it’s an incredibly deadly endeavour. I was actually trying to encourage him not to embark on the Seven Summits deal, but the amount of work that he’s put into it has really changed my mind. He’s taken it incredibly seriously.”

Pancoe said he takes a statistical approach to his training. He spends around two hours each day in the gym, wearing a garment that records and uploads his heart rate and other stats to his trainers on the East Coast. He also spends an hour or two each day climbing about 500 flights of stairs in his apartment building.

“I never thought I was physical, and then I pushed harder than I’ve ever done,” Pancoe said. “No one thought I could do this, including me, and now I’m there.”

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