On Sept. 13, 2010, Charlotte resident Jen Pagani, founder of the Go Jen Go Foundation, wrote a blog post that would later be included in her posthumously published book, Extraordinary: How One Woman’s Breast Cancer Journey Inspired A Community.
“What is hope anyway? A thing with feathers, a tune without words, this ethereal thing that supposedly springs eternal, something that floats?” she wrote. “Or is it just a series of wishes, a thousand lies, a multitude of rationalizations that we tell ourselves to make the unknown a little easier to swallow, especially when we are choking down a jagged little pill? … For me, it changes moment by moment, like clouds shifting shapes in the sky.”
Jennifer Burnette Pagani was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2007. After a courageous battle that lasted more than six years, she passed away on Feb. 4, 2014, at the age of 44. Released in March 2020, Extraordinary is a collection of the frequent blog posts that she posted to the site CaringBridge during those years.
Sometimes assisted by her husband Joe Pagani if she didn’t feel well enough to write, Jen documented the challenges of fighting for her own life — for a future with her husband and their two small boys, Rocoo and Luca. The posts range from her diagnosis in 2007 to her death.
Pagani lived a bold and full life. A two-time Ironman competitor, active community member, adventurous traveler and busy mother, she had recently given birth to Luca at the time of her diagnosis. As the book chronicles, she was still all of these things following that life-changing revelation, adding warrior against cancer and champion for others to her impressive life resume.
Extraordinary is a story about a woman’s battle with cancer, but also a moving chronicle of that woman’s everyday life as a wife, mother and friend. There is no benefit of hindsight here to make a tidy narrative; the prose is arresting in its immediacy. In the pages of Extraordinary, Pagani gives the same attention to her struggles with homework and bath time as those anxiety-ridden meetings with her doctors.
All proceeds from Extraordinary go to the Go Jen Go Foundation, founded by Jen and Joe before Jen’s passing to help people and families battling cancer with financial assistance for everyday expenses. On Oct. 2, the foundation will partner with Taste of Charlotte to hold the Pink Cupcake Walk in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. On Oct. 23, the foundation hosts the Cheers Jen Cheers tailgate, a drive-thru fundraiser in which people can pick up meals from Midwood Smokehouse and beer from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.
Jen Pagani’s everyday heroics
In between updates on her daily life and treatment, in Extraordinary we see a woman searching for clarity, peace of mind, and hope. She turns to her faith often, and draws upon her strength, both physical and mental, only to find that sometimes the things that have served her well before do not seem to be enough.
Among the descriptions of ever-shifting diagnoses and treatments — all told, Pagani went through nineteen rounds of chemotherapy, multiple radiation treatments, and experimental skin treatments — it is the introspective moments like the one quoted at the top of this story that will linger with me after reading her book.
Among all that she was going through, how does one hold onto hope and continue to fight? For Pagani, she found the answer in her children, her husband, and giving back to others.
It struck me that during her greatest time of need and vulnerability she was able to look around and recognize her privilege. She had a loving husband and family, health insurance, a roof over her head — even if that home seemed to require repairs and add to her stress at all the wrong times — and was financially secure.
The dozens of grocery store gift cards her loving network of friends were sending her? She began giving them out to the others she saw at her weekly treatments. She also began listening to them and their struggles, quickly seeing how fortunate she was and asking what more she could do.
She was still human, however, and struggled deeply with her mental health and balancing her fight to stay alive with being present for the people she was fighting to live for.
Go Jen Go
Founded by Jen and Joe before Jen’s passing, The Go Jen Go Foundation came into being from a simple desire to help women like those she met in treatment who had fewer resources than she, but were going through the same struggles. The foundation began by helping local Charlotte women pay their rent and utilities, even providing Christmas presents for their children.
When I spoke with Joe about the impact of their work, he got choked up recollecting a phone call he once received while in the middle of a work conference. He was busy, but hearing the worried voice of a stranger on the other line, he stepped away. The caller was going through chemo and had fallen behind on her electrical bill. The lights were about to be turned off, and along with them would go the heating pad she desperately needed to relieve her pain even the tiniest bit.
Joe called the electric company to pay what was owed and then some on the spot. Calling her back to say she could rest easy and keep her heating pad plugged in, he knew he was doing his late wife proud.
Joe no longer takes calls like these directly as the Go Jen Go Foundation has grown more established. He does still serve on the board, however, and the spirit of his response to the woman with the heating pad is what drives the foundation’s work. Whoever answers that call, they do not just see an electrical bill, they see someone in the midst of a struggle asking for a lifeline. As Joe told me, giving back to others “became a part of our battle” because “it is easy to have empathy when you are in those shoes.”
Under the stewardship of the board and Executive Director Susan Sears, The Go Jen Go Foundation has continued to grow and honor Jen’s legacy by giving other women diagnosed with breast cancer support with housing, transportation, utilities, and groceries, among other things. Today, the foundation provides over $135,000 each year in financial assistance to Charlotte area families in need, supporting 40-45 families with household bills each month.
I, too, have loved ones who have had their own breast cancer journeys and can imagine how many readers have your own stories to tell. Jennifer Pagani was an amazing woman, but one of the things I took away from her story is how many others are going through similar struggles. We cannot alleviate each other’s pain by knowing others may feel the same, but it can help those who are struggling feel a little less alone.
Whether you’re a survivor, currently fighting your own battle with cancer, or supporting a loved one, Extraordinary is a welcome companion. Pagani was not only extraordinary for what she did, but how she did it. Finding light among all the darkness, holding onto hope among all the uncertainty, and feeling empathy for others in a time when no one could blame her for thinking only of herself — this is what made Jennifer Pagani extraordinary.
While you may all not be able to complete an Ironman competition or run a 5K (I know I can’t), these things are available to each and every one of us. Jen’s story shows us the way, and for those who would like to follow, you have your chance this weekend.
Saturday’s proceedings begin at 10 a.m. and there are still plenty of registration spots open. Everyone is welcome at this inclusive community event, which also happens to include delicious cupcakes.