When Maureen McGowan turned 30, life was pretty sweet: She had great friends and a promising career. All that was put on hold when the Brooklyn-based graphic designer was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She made it through chemotherapy only to learn that her brother, Don, had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Instead of feeling despair, McGowan felt called to action. She joined the Lymphoma Research Foundation's charity team for the 2009 Five-Boro Bike Tour in NYC. Her foray into cycling soon developed into an interest in triathlons. McGowan plans to race the Poconos Half Ironman this October and the Lake Placid Ironman next summer.
While both Maureen and Don are in remission, coming so close to death has given them renewed faith in the phrase "seize the day." EspnW caught up with Don and talked about the lessons he's learned from his sister.
espnW: What was your reaction to the news about your sister's Hodgkin's lymphoma?
Don McGowan: How could it be her? It's not possible. She was perfectly healthy, always took care of herself. It just didn't make sense that someone so healthy could get so sick.
espnW: Were the two of you close?
DM: Not hugely so growing up, because there was a pretty big age difference. I moved out of the house when she was still in grade school. But there's always been that big-brother relationship. She was my little sister. I didn't want anything bad to happen to her.
espnW: It must have been a shock when you received your diagnosis.
DM: It was like someone yanked the carpet right out from under my feet. Like Maureen, I was always healthy. I was an active kid growing up. I took pretty good care of myself -- even going through treatment, people would say, "You don't look like you have cancer." Which just goes to show how this can happen to anyone.
espnW: Do you know anyone else in your family who has gone through this?
DM: No, no one we're aware of had Hodgkin's or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. There are so many unknowns about this disease, so many unanswered questions that need more research. I saw some of the best cancer doctors in the world when I went through treatment, and even they couldn't answer all the questions. That's why I think it is amazing what Maureen is doing, not just competing in triathlons, but using the sport as a way to raise funds for more research and better treatment.
espnW: Did Maureen's experience help you get through your own situation?
DM: Well, I guess I knew what I was in for. Maureen doesn't complain, and I'd heard her say how hard it was going through treatment, so I knew I was going to go through a tough time. But on the other hand, you think cancer and you think about people dying. I knew Maureen had fought back and been able to beat it, and I thought, If she can do it, you can do it, too.
And now, on the other side of it, I don't put stuff off anymore. I was definitely someone who pushed things back to tomorrow. After going through treatment, it's all about living my life right now.
espnW: Any Ironman ambitions of your own?
DM: Right now, I'm focused on getting back to being healthy. I just had surgery to repair one lung that was damaged from the cancer. But Maureen is an amazing inspiration in everything from handling her diagnosis to jumping into triathlons. I won't be competing, but I'll be there next summer for her Ironman to cheer her on.
-- Julia Savacool