"You're not ready for a call that says your brother had a seizure and he's in the ER," said Colin as tears welled in his eyes. He has told this story many times since that 2017 emergency, but the emotions are still raw and too strong to hold back completely. "And you go through testing and you're hearing doctors talk about the mass they found on his brain. It was one of those things where everything changed in the blink of an eye."
The mass turned out to be Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), the most common and most lethal type of brain cancer found in adults. It is estimated to kill more than 15,000 people a year and has claimed the lives of senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, Hall of Fame baseball player Gary Carter and Beau Biden, the son of President Joe Biden. The life expectancy of GBM patients undergoing treatment is currently only 12 - 15 months.
Despite those dire numbers, GJ Gerner and his entire family chose to fight back against the disease.
"I expect to live to an old age. Kick cancer's ass, as I've said many times," GJ laughed in a video documentary produced shortly after his diagnosis.
The night before his first brain surgery, GJ emerged from the bathroom with a clean-shaven face except for an uncharacteristic mustache: an acknowledgment that he wouldn't be returning to his office soon. In a show of unity and a nod to GJ's resolve, Colin and his father, George, grew their own mustaches. Others were inspired to do the same and a crusade was born: StacheStrong.
"StacheStrong isn't just a mustache," Colin said in the documentary. "It's a way of how you're attacking every day the way that GJ does. It's a way that when you're told you have an incurable disease...you say I'm not worried about that...you live StacheStrong."
More than just a motto, StacheStrong grew into an all-volunteer nonprofit organization founded by the Gerners and dedicated to raising funds and awareness for brain cancer research. It's the kind of resource that the family wished had existed before their nightmare began.
For more than two years, GJ endured additional surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and a litany of infusions and rehab efforts to battle GBM — all while helping Colin launch their nonprofit.
"My brother was fighting an incurable disease and also focused on how he could help other people. That's who he was. That's what StacheStrong is," said Colin, the nonprofit's CEO. "There's no silver bullet yet, but that's what we're focused on. Let's fund it. Let's find it. But let's also provide hope and support and advocacy for all those people who feel like they don't have a voice when they're diagnosed."
With fundraising events ranging from a national 5k run/walk, NYC Marathon team and golf tournaments to innovative partnerships with more than 250 craft breweries, StacheStrong has raised more than $2 million for brain cancer research and has funded 20 separate clinical trials and grants at top research institutions across the country. These efforts and the tireless passion of the Gerner family have made StacheStrong a leader in the brain cancer community. Much of the group's early success, Colin noted, can be traced right back to an army of UAlbany alumni, several of whom also serve on the Stachestrong board.
“Through partnerships with more than 250 craft breweries and various fundraising events, StacheStrong has raised more than $2 million for brain cancer research.”
"What impressed me about [Colin and GJ] is that they were very committed to the School of Business and DSP early on as students and then continued to be active as alumni," said Norman E. Snyder Jr., '83, CEO of Reed's Inc., the maker of Reed's Ginger Beer. "Witnessing their strong relationship and dedication, I was touched to be asked to serve as a board member of StacheStrong."
The lifelong connections formed on campus helped the Gerners' face their darkest days.
"UAlbany played a huge part in lifting up StacheStrong from day one because all of our friends in the city who were at different firms and from different walks of life, were our friends from UAlbany," Colin recalled. "I think about my brother's last days, who were the people who came in to see him? His buddies from UAlbany. Those guys who spent countless nights out, countless nights at the library. Those were the guys that were with him in his last days. I have never actually even thought about it, but that's the UAlbany difference."
Faculty and staff who knew Colin and GJ during their college years say the Gerner brothers made as much of a lasting impression on the University as it had on them.
Retired business professor Joe Sheehan recalls the respect, admiration and love between the two young men; it was something he never forgot.
"As proud as I have been of the tens of thousands of UAlbany students I have taught over a span of 41 years," Sheehan said via email, "none can match the family pride, family devotion, family care and family service that I witnessed Colin Gerner give to his brother GJ, all quite likely because, in his heart, [Colin] always knew that GJ would do the same for him. The StacheStrong program is family commitment at its best."
"UAlbany played a huge part in lifting up StacheStrong from day one because all of our friends in the city who were at different firms and from different walks of life, were our friends from UAlbany," Colin recalled.
At the 2022 Alumni Excellence Awards, Colin Gerner received the Irvis Outstanding Young Alumni award. Standing behind a sleek, acrylic lectern, Gerner delivered an emotional speech to a rapt audience.
"It's certainly tough to stand up here and accept an award knowing your brother and your best friend was lost as a byproduct of it," Gerner said as he fought back the tears and pledged to continue his brother's fight.
"I will continue to raise sizable funds for brain cancer research. I will continue to inspire and provide hope for families going through this diagnosis. And I will continue to #LiveStacheStrong just as my brother did throughout his 25-month battle...We all get a decision in life when we get knocked down. I hope you get back up. I hope you fight back. And I hope you make the world a better place."
Up against a brother's enduring love, brain cancer may have met its match.