MAX GONGAWARE: Cherishing every moment

Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019 -- My mom has stage four metastatic breast cancer To unpack that a bit, that means that my mom's cancer has spread to other parts of her body. Breast cancer doesn't kill people, but metastatic breast cancer does. Talk about a wakeup call. Let the moment-cherishing commence.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Max Gongaware helps lead youth programs for the YMCA in the Triangle and is a sports writer. His mother, Pam Kohl, is executive director of Susan G Komen N.C. Triangle to the Coast. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This column originally appeared on the Komen Connection blog.

Do you know how I know things aren’t necessarily going great health-wise for my mom? Because I’m writing a blog about “… the importance of balancing the good with the bad and cherishing every moment.”

How dark is that? Nobody gets asked about how they’re “cherishing every moment” when things are going just peachy.

Isn’t it odd that it usually takes something pretty serious (or a Richard Curtis rom-com) to inspire us to be more intentional about cherishing moments? As long as things are going well, we don’t take the time to appreciate it. But when things turn sour, we wake up and “embrace the moment.”

Pam Kohl (left) executive director of Susan G. Komen N.C. Traingle to the coast and her son (right) Max Gongaware.
My mom has stage four metastatic breast cancer. To unpack that a bit, that means that my mom’s cancer has spread to other parts of her body. Breast cancer doesn’t kill people, but metastatic breast cancer does. Talk about a wakeup call. Let the moment-cherishing commence.

Do you remember that scene in “Big Fish” (a 2003 film starring Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor) where all the kids look into the witch’s eye and find out how they’re going to die? I guess my mom’s situation is a little bit like that. There are still several pieces missing from the puzzle and, obviously, it’s a bit discomforting knowing how a loved one is – as Albert Finney’s character, Edward Bloom, would say – “going to go,” but knowing provides us with an opportunity to control as much of the rest of the story as we can, just as Edward Bloom did while living a tremendously adventurous life.

Knowing “the bad” means that we’re more deliberate about celebrating “the good;” even when “the good” might have seemed mundane before. Before cancer, my favorite memory with my mom was going to St. Louis to watch our beloved Tar Heels win the 2005 National Championship. Since cancer, one of my favorite memories is the time we sat down at Grand Central Station and just had a simple conversation over chocolate chip cookies and iced tea.

Before cancer, I couldn’t have cared much less about my mom’s musical hero, Bruce Springsteen. Since cancer, I’ve taken great joy in watching the catharsis my mom experiences through Bruce’s music. The simple act of throwing on a Springsteen T-shirt seems to make my mom feel better and – in turn – makes me feel better. We don’t have time to take those simple things for granted anymore. Plus – and don’t tell her this – I think I’m finally starting to “get” Bruce’s music. Turns out, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” kinda slaps.

Before cancer, attending the ACC Basketball Tournament in Greensboro was a given. Since cancer, the upcoming 2020 ACC Basketball Tournament in Greensboro feels like a milestone. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could attend another Tournament in mom’s hometown?” Instead of taking time with my mom for granted, I’ve learned to put even greater meaning behind it.

My mom’s diagnosis means that it’s okay to set smaller goals for ourselves and to celebrate each of the moments that lead to accomplishing those goals. It’s not a bad way to live: spend extra time with the people you love, celebrate even the smallest accomplishments, put the “crap” from the outside world in perspective, sing “Badlands” loudly, and well… cherish every moment.

So, yep. Life is great because my mom has cancer and it’s taught me a valuable life lesson about cherishing moments.

You see the flaw here, yes?

Nothing I’ve said above is untrue. I genuinely believe my mom’s cancer has allowed me to balance the bad with the good by cherishing every moment. But “the bad” hasn’t gone away.

I don’t want to dip into something that sounds like Harry Potter fan fiction, but another lesson I’ve learned through this whole ordeal is that “the bad” is always going to be there, fighting a never-ending battle against “the good.” In a vacuum, “the bad” is probably even more powerful than “the good.” That’s the part that sucks. Yes, cherishing moments is a great prescription that can help keep “the bad” from flaring up. But – just like my mom’s cancer – “the bad” is going to eventually outsmart whatever “good” we throw at it.

If “the good” is ever going to beat “the bad,” she’s going to need some teammates. My mom is my hero. She is “the good” personified. And – through her work at our local Susan G. Komen affiliate – she’s dedicated a big chunk of her professional life to forming her team: Hope. Money. Research. Advocacy. Bruce damn Springsteen.

And hopefully someday, the cures, or a way to treat metastatic breast cancer like a chronic disease. Even though she knows that she may not get to play for the team that will eventually beat “the bad,” she recognizes the importance of laying that foundation.

Right now, I’m balancing the good with the bad by cherishing every moment with my mom. I’m celebrating small accomplishments. And those small accomplishments are building that foundation. And while I haven’t looked into a witch’s eye or anything, I know we’re going to beat this thing someday.  Trust me, you should join the team.

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