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‘I will not fail': Wisconsin cancer survivor with multiple sclerosis trains to summit Mt Kilimanjaro

Matt Panelli training to summit Mount Kilimanjaro
Posted at 10:40 AM, Mar 11, 2024

MILWAUKEE — As he pushed through pain not easily seen by others, with each weight lifted during a Sunday afternoon workout, Matt Panelli had a big goal in mind.

"I don't remember a time where I didn't hurt all day long," Matt said.

At the YMCA in Wauwatosa, Matt is training to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2024.

It’s a feat not many could accomplish on a good day, yet Matt, who is fighting an ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis, said he’s determined to make the climb.

“I can tell myself I can’t about anything,” Matt explained. “This was me I guess fighting myself and saying, ‘F you dude, you can."

He said his goal is to help others struggling, to find hope in his journey as he overcomes not only his MS but a life filled with hardship.

“He can really be a role model for people to say, ‘Dude you really think you’ve got it bad?” Matt’s dad Ed Panelli said. “Let me tell you something, he lost his mother, he gets smacked in the face with cancer, and oh by the way let’s throw MS at you. He still got up.”

Matt said when an old friend first suggested the climb his first instinct was “not a chance” but after the death of his cat in October he began reexamining everything.

“I was loathing life,” Matt said. “I would have been perfectly fine with never waking up.”

It was a struggle with mental health that for his dad was hard to witness but since deciding to climb Kilimanjaro, Ed said he’s seen big positive changes in his son, both mental and physical.

"My job now is, I’m gonna help him be an inspiration to those with M, with other physical disabilities and emotional disabilities,” Ed said.

Together the pair are working to raise money to help Matt not only defy the odds but to document the whole experience.

The father-son duo is relying on community support on GoFundMe as well as sponsorships.

Matt said he’s been blown away by the many words of encouragement he’s received so far, settling even his own doubts.

“He is one of the most inspirational people that I know,” said friend Hope Sprague. “I know he can do this. The things I’ve seen Matt do are incredible.”

“It’s truly invigorating, invigorating like where I will not fail,” he said. “The only way I will fail is if my last breath leaves my body. That is the determination I have to do this.”

It’s a reality that for dad Ed is difficult to accept, but knowing the impact his son's story could have makes it more bearable.

“I did the hardest thing when I buried his mother and you don’t want to outlive your children, but I believe he’ll make it,” Ed said through tears. “If he doesn’t, he’ll go down a hero.”

Aside from the usual altitude challenges due to his MS, Matt will have to overcome things like numbness in his limbs, digestive issues, and chronic pain, as he climbs more than 19 thousand feet.