For much of his life, Todd McGovern ’97 defied the odds. At the Taft School skeptics proclaimed him too small to play collegiate Division III sports. But on Mayflower Hill he played baseball and ice hockey with fierce spirit and, say his teammates, a huge heart. He captained both teams, leading men’s ice hockey to an ECAC championship as a senior.
His baseball teammates recall one tough afternoon at Coombs Field when the Mules were losing badly and couldn’t hit the opposing pitcher. McGovern, a centerfielder and right-handed batter, stepped up to the plate to hit lefty. He found his pitch and, to his teammates’ astonishment, whacked the ball over the fence for a home run.
“That was Todd in a nutshell,” said teammate Jerrod DeShaw ’97, now an investment executive in Burlington, Vt. “You would expect that from him. He was a phenomenal athlete; you’d call him scrappy, with a crazy competitive streak. There wasn’t much Todd couldn’t do.”
Including proving the experts wrong when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and told he had just months to live. McGovern defied the odds, living more than eight years. During that time he remained positive, ran 10K’s and marathons, and refused to waste the time he had left. McGovern even established a lasting philanthropic legacy, the Seas It Foundation, which provides grants to cancer patients.
But if he surprised no one with his gutsy approach to cancer, the sudden onset of his illness was a shock to all who knew him.
“I figure I have about sixty really bad days a year. That leaves three hundred and five good days, and it’s what you do with those good days that makes your life.”
—Todd McGovern ’97
In 2004, just turned 30, McGovern seemed at the top of his game. That year he married Amanda Constanzo, whom he’d known since prep school. They were deeply in love. McGovern’s charisma—and knack for closing the deal—had brought him success in the field of executive recruitment. He and Amanda dreamed of raising a family together.
Then, just six weeks after returning from a Caribbean honeymoon, McGovern decided to go to the doctor about a nagging abdominal pain. The diagnosis: stage IV colorectal cancer. The disease had invaded a second organ and was spreading so fast that an oncologist told McGovern that he would die within six months.
McGovern, known as “Gov” to teammates, responded with the same grit that sent him into the corners at the Alfond Rink against much brawnier opponents. He was still fighting eight years later on a foggy morning in May 2012, when he and his wife, pregnant with twin boys, drank tea at their seaside home in Allenhurst, N.J.
“I got angry I had an expiration date,” said McGovern, as he steeled himself for what would be his 136th chemotherapy treatment later that week, part of a regimen to keep the tumors at bay.
McGovern’s fight against colorectal cancer inspired those close to him, including a cadre of Colby friends who kept in touch throughout the epic struggle. He also inspired scores of cancer survivors through the Seas It foundation, which he founded with his wife in 2005. Seas It has provided grants of $400 to more than 50 patients and their caretakers.
The foundation’s name is meant to conjure up the comfort McGovern drew from the nearby Atlantic Ocean during his illness, as well as his determination to live his life to the fullest, despite his dispiriting prognosis and energy-sapping treatments. He knew his days were short. He approached his life accordingly. Physical activity was central to McGovern’s pre-cancer life, and it played a major role in his life with cancer. In 2008, in between chemotherapy treatments, he ran a rainy New Jersey marathon in four hours.
“I figure I have about sixty really bad days a year,” he said. “That leaves three hundred and five good days, and it’s what you do with those good days that makes your life.”
Seas It grants support for recreational pursuits, which McGovern said helped him as he focused on recovery with a positive attitude, despite four surgeries and scores of regimens of chemotherapy and radiation. DeShaw rallied friends and Colby alumni to raise $52,000 for Seas It through sponsorships when they ran the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Some competed in teams, with McGovern completing a six-mile leg in 2009 and 2010. His real payoff, he said, came later.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than telling someone we’ve given them a grant,” said McGovern. “You’d think we’d given them a million dollars. … Having cancer can be the loneliest experience, ever. I like to deliver the good news. For too many people with cancer, all they hear about are statistics of death.”
In May McGovern grinned as he doted on his pregnant wife and ambled about their home. He’d just returned after a month’s hospitalization following the shutdown of his gastrointestinal system, an excruciating experience that McGovern likened to getting stabbed in the side and having your assailant drag barbed wire through the wound.
Back living at home, he still had his weekly chemotherapy treatments, which brought him to the health-care facility to let the powerful chemotherapy drugs drip into his veins for eight hours.
“You go in healthy and strong, ready to be productive as possible, with correspondence to catch up on, people you want to follow up with,” he said. “Then the first drip goes into you and your plan changes. You get groggy. You get irritable. You count the hours. Getting through eight hours is a challenge. There’s another round and another round and another round. It becomes part of your new life.”
The latest chemotherapeutic concoction was working so well in May that McGovern had regained some strength. He’d climbed the stairs at home. The day before he’d strolled two miles along Ocean Avenue with his black Labrador, Kingsley, at his side.
It was that determination to live fully—and the support of his wife—that sustained the couple for so long despite McGovern’s illness. For several years Amanda commuted 60 miles a day to Manhattan to her job as a client services manager at the diamond retailer Cartier. In 2011 Todd was in remission. They had considered in-vitro fertilization during the early days of his illness, but had decided to wait. Then, at 36, Amanda became pregnant.
In June, a day before Father’s Day, Amanda gave birth to Andrew Todd and William Todd McGovern.
“The boys were beautiful and healthy, and Todd and Amanda really had their hands full,” said friend and former teammate Bill Riley ’99, who visited in late summer. “But Amanda was talking about how he was failing. She sent out an e-mail to a bunch of friends, asking us to send words of encouragement. Todd was the big brother I never had. I encouraged him to keep fighting. I can’t imagine he’d stop.”
By November, however, the weekly chemotherapy and the spreading cancer had taken their toll. He’d grown so weak he could no longer withstand the treatments. “His body was shutting down,” Amanda said. “He just woke up one morning in early November and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’”
That month, the McGoverns welcomed hospice care to their home so Todd could live out his final days surrounded by family. He was healthy enough one day to go Christmas shopping with Amanda to buy the twins a train set, with custom boxcars. They got a tree and put up stockings. He wanted to have Christmas with his boys.
“We’re doing an early Christmas,” Amanda said. “Todd’s goal was to make it to Christmas. I really hope he does.”
The McGoverns celebrated Christmas in style as Todd clung to what was left of his all-too-short life. He died Jan. 28.
Seas It, meanwhile, moves forward with its mission to improve the lives of people fighting cancer and the caregivers who support them. The nonprofit hired a patient services coordinator in January. In April news of the foundation’s work continued to be posted on its Facebook page.
Katie, a Stage IV cancer patient, received a grant for a membership at a YMCA. Terry, a Stage III ovarian cancer patient, was given yoga classes. Eric was awarded a grant to play golf at four different courses after his surgery in the spring.
A breast cancer patient from Philadelphia thanked the foundation for a YMCA membership. “Not only will the physical activity help me with my recovery, but the family time together is priceless,” she wrote.
A man from Ponte Vedra, Fla., in treatment for testicular cancer, reported that he had good days and bad days but was taking small steps toward recovery. “The opportunity that you both have provided me is one that is not only close to my heart but one that will allow my family and I to recapture some of the smaller pleasures, like a bike ride to the beach.”
And Amanda McGovern recently reposted a blog entry she’d made in 2010. In it she recounted the lows and highs of her husband’s illness and treatment and reported she had bought a refrigerator magnet with the Winston Churchill quote, “Never, never, never, give up.”
The post ended with the couple’s typical response to the trial that their life had become. “Todd’s chemo schedule is the same as it has always been except the drugs are more intense and heavy hitting,” Amanda wrote. “He has three days of continuous chemo followed by an 11-day break. It’s a beautiful morning—the first of my one-week vacation. We’re off to watch the sunrise together at the beach with King.”