The Beginning of StacheStrong

“GJ had a Seizure”

-Colin Gerner

Those were the words spoken to me on Saturday, September 2nd of Labor Day Weekend when I received a call that made no sense to me at the time from one of Geej’s best friends. My mind raced. Was he dehydrated? Did he hit his head or have an accident? I mean how could this happen to my healthy brother who had texted me earlier that morning, “Woah – I turn 30 in 13 months from today!” I Ubered home from the beach and spent the next 10 hours at the hospital with Geej going through different tests and scans. At around 11:00 PM we took an ambulance from the downtown Mount Sinai ER to the Upper East Side Mount Sinai hospital for overnight stay. Geej and I were greeted by a member of the neurology team once we got to the hospital room and he said he was reviewing the MRI images and would have more to report on in the morning, but I could tell there was more he wanted to say.

This is when everything changed.

I followed the doctor into the hallway and it was no longer a question – he told me they had found a large brain tumor.

Now mind you, it’s almost midnight and Geej hasn’t eaten all day so I walked in the rain to pick up some McDonalds. What a walk. I replayed the doctor’s words over and over in my head like a broken record. My mind raced, tears flowed and I wanted to just scream. Instead, I ordered some double cheese burgers and ice cream sundaes. We devoured our food and I left the hospital room with a heavy heart. Sleep? No. There wasn’t much of that on this night. Late nights and early mornings would become a theme.

The next 4 days felt like a year, yet a blink of an eye at the same time. Geej was scheduled to undergo brain surgery to remove the mass on Wednesday, September 6th. We started to tell family and close friends and I reiterated one thing: there is NOTHING wrong with Geej so please act strong in front of him even if you feel you could collapse inside. Yes, he was in the hospital preparing for a very serious and invasive surgery, yet he was GEEJ. He wasn’t in pain and he certainly didn’t want you feeling bad for him.

Our daily schedules between meetings and tests with different specialist were spent playing scrabble, watching baseball, walking throughout the hospital and whatever else could make the hands on the clock move a bit faster. I wanted to be with him every second of the day because I felt that if I wasn’t, it allowed for more idle time spent pondering the upcoming possibilities. Hell, that’s where my mind went the second I left late each night…

I had shaved my light beard down into a mustache for Labor Day weekend (Col being Col…) and when Geej came out of the bathroom the night before surgery with a fresh shaved face donning a mustache, it was a rush of emotions. We were in this together and it was at that moment that #StacheStrong was born. Over the past 6 months the mustache has become quite a staple, but it is truly more than a crazy mustache. It has been my Superman cape, my Captain America shield and my Thor hammer all in one. It has protected us through a successful brain surgery, the news of cancer in the form of grade 4 glioblastoma, the first round of chemotherapy and radiation, 5 additional rounds of max dosage chemo, Optune array treatment and everything in between. #StacheStrong has truly become a rallying call, but at the end of the day it is the strength of one person that has made all the difference. I’m happy to call the strongest human I’ve ever met in my life my big brother, my best friend and my hero.

Ultimately, the past 6 months have taught us ALL a lot. As someone looking in, you have probably read all of Geej’s journal entries on his Caring Bridge site. You’ve probably also wondered how in the world is his outlook so positive. How can he post so nonchalantly and be so uplifting? Shouldn’t it be OUR job to lift HIM up?!?

Rule #1 about Geej – it’s not an act…it’s NEVER an act.

The kid is an absolute warrior and is always ON. Being on the inside for this, I’ve realized that in so many different fashions. It all starts with how he handled brain surgery. Quick Recap: The surgeon went into his brain and removed a tumor larger than a golf ball… If any of us get hit in the head with a golf ball we would probably be out of commission for the weekend, no question. He had one on his brain removed and was released in UNDER 3 DAYS!!!

That moment standing in the middle of the chaotic NYC street with him is something I’ll never forget. 72 hours ago I had seen him hooked up to every hose, wire and device you could imagine. Now as I lowered him into the car, donning his Mets jersey and the ‘ol “GJ Smile” to head home, he said, “Thanks for the past week, man.” I laughed it off, but I thought about it the rest of the day. Here’s a kid who just went into the complete unknown for one of the most invasive surgeries your body will ever have to endure…and he’s thanking us.

No, no, no….Thank YOU, Geej. Thank you for showing us what it means to be #StacheStrong.

Another vivid memory of the past 6 months was the day he graduated from the Procure Radiation center in Somerset, NJ. At this point our family had been living in a hotel room for nearly 6 weeks. Monday to Friday we made our quaint hotel room feel as homey as you possibly could. We were leaving for the last time and heading to Geej’s graduation ceremony where they allowed each patient who had recently completed their 6 week radiation to give their graduation speech. My mom, dad, Kelly and I sat at the front table right in front of the podium as different graduates gave their speech. When Geej got up there and started speaking, our table became a waterfall. Yet, he didn’t bat an eyelash at the podium. He thanked the center, the doctors, the concierge team and ultimately us. It was just a few minutes of appreciation and joy for everything everyone did to make him feel comfortable and normal. These types of diagnosis’ shouldn’t happen to anyone and hopefully our efforts aid to ensure they don’t happen in the future, but Geej is the kind of guy who receives a grim diagnosis and decides he’s going to fight it aggressively with a smile each and every day. That’s the kind of person you want to go into battle alongside.

My last example is with his Optune treatment. You can watch the full video and a time lapsed version below to see just what he goes through, but this is what happens every 2-3 days:

I shave his head;

Prepare the table with alcohol, swabs, arrays and descriptive placement diagrams;

  • Apply alcohol to sanitize his head;
  • Place the 4 sets of arrays systematically around his head;
  • Undo all zip ties;
  • Tape down all sides of the arrays;
  • Tape down all wires;
  • Braid the wired; and
  • Plug into the machine.

We then wait for the beeps to stop (meaning successful connection) and fist pound. Every. Time. He then carries this around with him in a backpack 24/7, while also planning out the day to take into account battery life, charging needs, etc.

Easy peasy, right?

For him, you’d think it was as easy as putting on his socks in the morning. We have gotten into a pretty good rhythm of removing the arrays, working out at one of our apartments and then reapplying before having dinner. He ultimately has to deal with Doctor Colin applying the apparatus, but always makes room for a big bro jab. In the beginning this wasn’t easy. What I mean by that is it wasn’t easy hooking my brother up to a machine; but, my view has completely changed.

It’s a part of Geej.

It’s his sidekick in the bare-knuckled fight against cancer.

The Tim Reynolds to his Dave Matthews.

The Pippen to his Jordan.

The Arthur Shelby to his Thomas Shelby.

(I also secretly like to think it gives him super powers).

Last and certainly not least, one of the most unspoken pieces of cancer is those directly affected. While the rest of us are certainly healthy, life has changed and it’s almost as though a piece of us is missing. I’ve always wondered how families keep it together and march on into darkness; that was, until it happened to us. I can now tell you exactly HOW it happens. It’s not easy. It’ll never be easy. I wish I could tell you it was.

But it only happens TOGETHER.

My dad has been the captain of the boat; navigating us and never wavering, no matter the height of the waves or the strength of the wind. He has truly put everyone else first and been an absolute rock.

My mom has been the 5 star utility player doing anything and everything to make sure everyone is comfortable and happy at all times. She’s the shoulder to cry on and the smile to laugh with.

My sister has been the breath of fresh air. Always smiling and truly becoming a woman. She lives in Buffalo, yet has been flying/driving in constantly and always seems to be there at the perfect time.

It takes each and every one of us, TOGETHER, to beat a foe like brain cancer.

TOGETHER, we will beat it; mark my words.

Help us improve the survivability rate for all those battling this foeby contributing to the brain cancer research fund, to help find a cure!!!