"I just felt like I was the vessel and I'm going to do the best that I can." Ross Bernkrant, cancer survivor
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ABOUT ROSS BERNKRANT:
Ross Bernkrant joins the 161st episode of the podcast to talk about his battle with cancer. When he was 26 he was diagnosed with final stage esophageal cancer, which could have very well been the end of the road. But with a little luck, and an incredible outlook on life and positive attitude, Ross came out the other side cancer-free. Hear all about his amazing journey and how he is working to start a charity to help others going through cancer, with a little spin-off from Forest Gump. Ross also talks about his connections to another friend of Death Wish Coffee, the Albany Distilling Company.
Jeff: I mean, you're dressed as Forrest Gump.
Jeff: Because you're going to do the Gump run. Can we talk about how this came to be and what it is?
Ross: Yes. Sure. So, the Gump run, it started six years ago.
Ross: The idea of it, and it wasn't originally the Gump run. It was born just to do some charity event, and when that first came about... So, I was diagnosed with cancer and I was diagnosed with late stage esophageal cancer.
Jeff: Oh my gosh.
Ross: And at the time, I was 26 years old. I'm 32 now, and it was something that, it was just completely unexpected. For most people obviously with cancer, it's an unexpected occurrence, but especially at 26. So, at 26, I started having basically, so I was working in private equity and I was working super long hours and I would come home from work at 8:39, shovel food down, and one of the nights as I was shoveling, it was pasta, I had trouble swallowing the food. So I'm like, "Huh, that's a little weird." But...
Ross: ... I was like, "I'll chew better. Problem resolved."
Ross: So, I started chewing better and two weeks later, same problem with the food, just having trouble swallowing it. So I was like, "All right. It's a little weird, but I'll just chew better than that." And that progressed for a month or two where I started having these occurrences where I was having trouble swallowing the food and it just happened more often. What was happening every two weeks, started happening once every week and then it happened every couple of days. Then it started happening more frequently and during that time I was getting just super tired, but I thought I was just working 70 hours a week, so I was like, "Oh, this all makes sense. I don't chew my food well because I'm hungry when I get home and I need to chew my food better and I'm tired because I'm working."
Ross: So, that progressed for a couple months. Eventually I went to the doctor and they did some blood work and I was low with my red blood cell. It was like, "That's a little weird, but it's nothing to be super frayed over. It's nothing alarming yet." So he said, "Do you have any other symptoms?" I said, "Well, I'm having some trouble swallowing food." He said, "All right. Why don't you go to see a gastroenterologist?" So, I went to see a gastroenterologist and I told him my symptoms and he really wasn't overly concerned either at that point, but he said, "Just to make sure that there's nothing going on, we'll do an endoscopy." An endoscopy, it's a camera that goes down your esophagus and he thought it was an ulcer or something.
Ross: Leading up to it, he scheduled the endoscopy two months out from that point because he just really wasn't... He said, "You're 26, you're healthy, you're a young guy. I'm really not concerned, but let's schedule it two months out." So, he schedules it two months out leading up to that I started to get progressively more tired and trouble swallowing and eating food. It just kept on getting worse to the point where I would get home from work on a Friday and I was 26 and I lived with a buddy and all my buddies would go out partying and I'll be like, "I'm just going to stay in and rest." And I would just basically rest for the entire weekend, which is, it's a pretty clear indicator, if you're looking from a high level...
Ross: ... but when you're in it, you just don't think anything's really wrong. I was like, "Oh, I'm just tired from work and what have you." So, fast forward, we're to the point of where I'm going to have the endoscopy, and the doctor, he actually, so he comes out and he made sure to have my sister in the room and he actually teared up and he's like, "We found something. It's something completely unexpected." He's like, "I've actually already gotten on the phone with the oncologist. The best oncologist in Boca." And he said, "I have an appointment for you. I want you to see him immediately." So, it was just like...
Ross: ... it was a moment where it was as cliched, just completely surreal.
Ross: My sister was sitting right next to me. I remember she just sat on and just started bawling and I was just in shock.
Ross: Like what's going on. So, all of a sudden, and I'm sure most people that go through a cancer scenario, it's a similar situation. It's just shocking, and then it's just taking it all in and, "Okay. So, what do we do from here?"
Ross: We all know our days are limited. Right?
Ross: And at some point time's going to run out.
Ross: But, when you're younger and I don't know what age you start to become more aware. I'm assuming for most people it's one year, 80s or something along those lines when you start to get older, but when you're younger, we know that at some point we're going to die. But it's just this thing that we just don't even think about. All of a sudden from that moment it became, "Okay. This could happen soon."
Ross: And it could happen very soon. So the next step is they stage the cancer. So they knew that it was, because I had a huge tumor in my esophagus. That's what they saw within the endoscopy, I missed that. So, they saw a huge tumor in my esophagus that was taking up most of my esophagus and that's what, so I was having trouble swallowing. Next step is, you go to actually stage it and they do a biopsy and that's like you're crossing your fingers and you say, "Hopefully it's localized." Which means that it hasn't spread to the rest of your body, and then they stage it from there. So, they did the biopsy and then they do a further endoscopy and they stage it, and at that point they staged it at the latest stage possible. So, any type of cancer at the latest stage possible is a low survival rate. So, an interesting thing, and if anyone has cancer that's going through this, it might be a good tip. I never actually looked at the statistics online, personally.
Ross: So, and it was one of the things, it was just like, "I don't want to know."
Ross: I don't because everyone's different how they react to the chemo and radiation. I just didn't want to know.
Jeff: I think I would be the same way. I can't imagine... I'm trying to put myself in your position. I can't imagine that day of realizing that, but I definitely wouldn't want to go down the rabbit hole and self-diagnose.
Ross: That's exactly.
Ross: Yeah. That's exactly. So, I was already scared. It's like I don't want to scare myself any more and I just wanted to be positive about it and just think at all times because it's like, "I didn't know if I Googled it, maybe it says you have a 0%."
Ross: So I just didn't want to know, but I obviously knew based on the doctor's reaction and them saying, "This is late stage and this is very..." They said, "This is very serious and we need to do basically everything possible." So, they stage the latest stage possible. Obviously my family Googled it and I could tell from their reactions. They never told me. I was like, "I don't want to know."
Ross: So they did their own research.
Ross: From there, we started asking the oncologists. We said, "So, who's the best doctor for this in the world?" And they kept on saying this doctor, Dr. Ajani. So, Dr. Ajani, he's at MD Anderson, which is in Houston, Texas. My sister's a dentist and she started researching Dr. Ajani and just his research and his papers and what have you. At the end of one of his papers, pretty sure it was a mistake because it had his personal email and that was the other question was, "Can you get this in contact with Dr. Ajani?"
Ross: That was... "So, who's the best? Can you get us in contact with him?" And they say, "Unfortunately, he's a celebrity in this world."
Jeff: If he's the best, I'm sure he's untouchable.
Ross: That's exactly.
Jeff: Right. Yeah.
Ross: So, it's like, and we were like, "Is there any way?" And they're like, "We don't think so." They're like, "You can try, but there's nothing that we can do."
Jeff: You're going to get a receptionist who's going to be like, "I'll write you down."
Ross: That's exactly.
Ross: So, we tried. So we called MD Anderson and they pretty much said that. They said, "Well, we could probably get you in for a consultation four to five months." And four to five months, I'm like, "That might be when I'm..."
Jeff: Right. Right.
Ross: "... kicking the bucket." I'll make it that way.
Jeff: Yeah. You don't want to think that way, but I mean, when you are faced with the moment of, "I didn't do everything possible immediately..."
Jeff: "... four to five months is not immediate."
Ross: That's exactly. Unfortunately cancer grows and it spreads. So that's four to five months and can spread. So, literally right after this phone call, I was with my family and it was like my, we're staying at my aunt and uncle's house at the time and my mom was on her computer and she didn't tell anyone she sent an email to Dr. Ajani and the subject was, 26 year old stage four, no risk factors, because that's normally to the esophageal, the risk factors are you're normally over 65 to 70, smoker, overweight or chewing tobacco. So, I had none of that normal risk factors. So with that said, what our thought was is maybe Dr. Ajani would be interested in my case because I'm not the norm.
Ross: So I'm essentially an outlier. So, my mom sends this email, doesn't tell anyone in the family that she had sent it and we're all in the room together and my sister was there in the room too. My mom's like, "Oh, I just emailed doctor." My sister was like, "No, no, no. I wanted to craft the email and well have you." While they're bickering, like "Mom, why did you do...? We want to use it to get in touch with him." Dr. Ajani emails back.
Ross: And he says, "I'm so sorry about your son. Come to see me in two days with all of your scans and what have you and hopefully I can do something for him." It went from one of the lowest moments, family and what have you, just taken on more like, "Okay. Finally, we've got a break." And what's interesting too is, when I'd like to talk about it, it definitely wasn't the best luck to get diagnosed with the cancer, but from that point forward, everything that happened was basically incredibly good luck, and that was the start of the really good luck for the process.
Ross: So, we flew out to Houston and during the, and so I was diagnosed May 9th and mother's day was May 10th. I think it was-
Jeff: It's usually around that. Yeah.
Ross: Yeah. So, mother's day was literally the next day. So, it's like... I remember that day going to get my mom her mother's day card and I was by myself going to get to, and just thinking about my mom and how she's processing it.
Ross: And during that time I remember I had this really great experience with the woman that was helping me with the cards for my mom and she was just like... You meet those people at the grocery store, what have you, and they're just incredibly sweet and they change your whole...
Ross: The dynamic of your day just by their good energy.
Ross: I had one of those experiences buying the cards. Just this incredible woman, and during that moment I was just overwhelmed with just good vibes and good energy, and I was like, "If this is my last six months to a year on earth, I want to at least leave something positive for the world." I was 26 and I'd focused on my career up until that point. So it's like, I don't feel I had created any value necessarily as a person.
Jeff: I understand that. Yeah. Yeah.
Ross: You go through college and it's this selfish thing for yourself, and then you do your career and you're focused on yourself and obviously you're trying to be good to everyone around you.
Jeff: Right. But-
Ross: But it's for yourself, everything. So, at that point I was like, "What can I do to, if I leave something at least so I feel good for humanity."
Jeff: Right. Oh yeah.
Ross: Overarching, and obviously at that point you start thinking deeper. So, at that time I was like, "Maybe I'll try to start some charity, do something with my friends and get them involved, so if I don't make it, at least they have something positive to think about in my memory."
Ross: So, that was where the initial idea and the Gump run, the premise of it wasn't born at that moment, but the idea of let's do something for charity. So I came back and talked to my mom and everything. I was like, "Let's do something for charity. Let's start a charity. Let's do something." And that was just it. It was very...
Jeff: Just an idea.
Ross: Just an idea.
Ross: There was no specifics yet. It was really nice because during the whole process of the treatment, what have you, it gave me something to look forward to. If I survive this, and I never really said, "If I survive this." But when I survive this, this is what I can, this will be great. This will be something that I can do after I survive to get back and work on and have it as something I do for the rest of my life. So, that's where the idea was born. So we fly out to Dr. Ajani and yeah. So, he did tests and his first, Dr. Ajani, he's this shorter Indian man who is, he doesn't say very much. He's a data junkie that just looks at data and he studies it and he just doesn't say very much. When I first came in and said, "Okay. We're going to see if you're potentially curable." And that was basically it.
Ross: And he said, "We've got to run some tests to see if you're potentially curable." And it was a bizarre thing to say.
Ross: Because you're like, "Okay. Hopefully I'm potentially curable." But he was sweet. He's an amazing human being. So he said, "We're going to see if you're potentially curable." So they run all the tests that they did previously, the endoscopy, they did CT scans and PET scans and that's to see just how far the cancer had spread. I don't know if I had mentioned. So, it'd spread partially to my stomach and to my lymph nodes.
Jeff: Oh my gosh.
Ross: But it hadn't spread everywhere. So, I was at the point like, let's call it maybe a month or two later if I gotten diagnosed, it would have been palliative type care.
Jeff: Man, that is scary.
Ross: Yeah. So, Dr. Ajani gets the tests back and he said, "You're potentially curable." So, he said, basically what they did is they have an entire team at MD Anderson with these different specialists' radiation. He focuses mostly on the chemo and then your surgery too.
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ross: Basically the surgery, if you can get to surgery, you've been successful in your chemo and radiation because the cancers shrunk enough that they can try to remove it with margins. So our goal was basically for the chemo and radiation to have a positive enough reaction that I get to have surgery.
Ross: So, went through chemo and radiation and that was an experience in and of itself and it's like looking back on the experience and people can always, a lot of times people are nervous to ask about the cancer too, and it's something that, for me personally, it's one of my favorite things to talk about because of early detection and a lot of people don't think a 26 year old can have cancer. So that's why it's one of my, I enjoy talking about it because I feel every person I tell my story to, maybe they'll be more aware and maybe they won't catch it at late stage. Maybe when they get their first symptom... From when I had my first symptom, it was probably about eight months later.
Ross: So, if I had at that moment really pushed the doctors, I think I could have gotten diagnosed earlier and maybe I would have been, instead of late stage, I would have been a little earlier where it was localized in my esophagus. So, for cancer in general, early detection is key. If you can detect cancer early before it's late stage, your chances of survival are exponentially higher than if you catch it late. So like I said, early detection, I love talking about cancer just for that reason. If people are listening, they're like, "Hey, maybe I'll go and if something's bothering me chronically for a couple of weeks, I'll go to the doctor." So go through chemo, radiation and we were just hoping for a little bit better. It shrank a little bit better. My radiation oncologist, he does obviously the scans after to see how the cancer, how you've reacted and during the cancer treatment, they don't test you to see how it's reacting.
Ross: So, you have no idea. You're like, "I don't know if it's getting worse or if it's getting better. I hope it's getting better." But you don't know for a couple months. So you're just in this black hole. I don't know what's going on. I hope I'm getting better. You just have no idea. So, we finally, after a couple of months, they did the test to see where it was and I'll never forget, it's a background to my phone. I wish I had my phone right now, but it says, it was on a piece of paper and it said remarkable metabolic response and it actually showed on the scans that my cancer was completely gone.
Ross: And for my type of cancer, literally on a doctor's description, it said remarkable. My radiation oncologist said, "I've never seen anyone write this in the medical field."
Ross: So like I said, there was some bad luck, but from that point forward, I was the luckiest guy in the world. Was just about everything, Dr. Ajani, how my body reacted to the chemo and radiation. So, said remarkable metabolic response. Actually we don't see any cancer. But after that, the follow was with the surgeon.
Ross: And the surgeon, we were hoping just to be able to get the surgery because the surgery, if they can remove all the areas around the affected area, your chances of survival are exponentially higher. I guess actually, well I'll say now the survival rate. So, I didn't at the time, but since I've looked up the survival rates and the survival rates are actually, there are anywhere for that stage, it's 5% to 19%.
Jeff: Oh my gosh.
Ross: So it's a very, it's a low survival rate.
Ross: To put in perspective that remarkable metabolic response, that's why they're like, "Whoa. We don't normally see this." So I was incredibly lucky from there, but so next meeting was with the surgeon and the surgeon said, "We're incredibly happy that you've reacted this well." The surgeon works with my main oncologist and the radiation oncologist and he said, "Basically, you've reacted really well, but if the cancer comes back, then basically there's nothing, you can get chemo, but you can't do radiation because radiation, once your body has been radiated, they can't radiate anymore." There's a certain level of radiation in that part of your body, they've hit their max.
Ross: So they're like, "If the cancer comes back, there's no more radiation." Basically, we've run the data and your chances of survival are very low if it comes back. But if we do the surgery, then your chances of survival past five years at this point are very high."
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ross: And that's the goal is for cancer is five years. We want to get you to five years out.
Jeff: And you're six now?
Ross: I'm not six years. Yeah. I could. So, he said, "I highly recommend doing the surgery." But let me tell you about the rest of the surgery.
Jeff: Oh, no.
Ross: So, the surgery, it's a nine hour surgery. They remove two thirds of your esophagus, one third of your stomach, take out the lymph nodes, and he said, "So I'm going to tell you about all the problems with the surgery that I've had just this year." And this surgeon at MD Anderson, they get the top and basically every field, this surgeon was a number one for this type of surgery in the world. He does the most of this type of surgery.
Ross: "So let me tell you about the problems I've had this year with this surgery." He's like, "I've done..." I think at the time he was like, "I've done 40 of these surgeries this year and 30 of them had a problem."
Jeff: Oh my gosh.
Ross: Not a huge problem, but he's like, "A problem enough where it'll affect the rest of your life. You might have to have a feeding to, something where you're going to be aware of this for the rest." So I was like, "Okay. Well, but at least I'll be alive."
Ross: So he's like, "I'm going to give you guys a one night to think on it if you have the surgery, if you want to have the surgery." And it was my mom and my stepfather that were with me. I remember my stepdad's face was just white, just...
Ross: ... very frightened just basically going through the surgery. So, we talked about and we're like, "It's a no brainer. If something goes wrong with the surgery and I have a little bit of a problem for, at least I'm alive."
Jeff: Right. Right.
Ross: So, there's people in a lot less situation and potentially having some a feed, what have you, people have a 10 times worse. So I just want to live. So, we said, "Okay. We'll go ahead and do the surgery." So, went through this surgery and fortunately I was out of those people that didn't had the problems. I was one of the people that didn't have any problems with the surgery. I was super lucky and he's an amazing surgeon and so like saying that the statistics, I feel bad. He's an amazing surgeon. It's just the surgeon... There's so many different things that they're doing, cutting out these different parts. They open you here, they open from here to here, and then they split your ribs and they, I have a huge scar on my back. So there's just so many different little variables that can go wrong.
Ross: But anyways, I was super lucky. Surgery was great. So, then you're declared cancer free and so you go, like I said, where you transition to your normal life where you're not thinking about death really at all. Sometimes you're aware of it if, God forbid you lose a loved one and it comes into your life, but it's still, for you personally, it's not a big part. So I'd gone from when I was diagnosed thinking, "Okay. I might only have a few more months to... Okay. Now you're cancer free." And now it's like, "Okay. So where do I go from here?" The way I describe it, it was also very clear like a rebirth, because you've got all this perspective now on life, you've been close to death and very aware of death and it's also really amazing too, because when you're going through something you really get the best out of the people that are in your life and not necessarily in your life, just like the nurses, the doctors, your friends that you hadn't spoke to. It was in, what shall I call, 2013 when I got diagnosed.
Ross: So, social media wasn't to this extent, but there was social media for sure. So I would on occasion, I wasn't a big poster while I was going through it, but I would just post every once in a while to give a small update just to let people that I wasn't interacting with regularly, just to let them know that I was doing okay and doing better, but the amount of messages that I got, private messages, it was just incredible, and people that I hadn't spoke to since I was 10 years old, they would just say the kindest, the nice, I got so many just letters and it was incredible, and I really got to see the best of humanity at that point.
Ross: So, it was just such a life altering thing to go through in so many positive ways and if I could go back and not have the cancer or have the cancer, in a heartbeat I'd go back and have the cancer just because of the value and the positive things it's done for myself personally, but every person that's close to me, because a lot of my friend and family, the way that they were potentially living their life, they changed. If they're unhappy with their jobs, some of them quit and they are like, "I don't know how long I'll be here. Ross just had cancer." So many positive things came out of it, and that brings to the Gump run. So the idea kept on turning.
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jeff: How long of a timeline was it from getting diagnosed with cancer to being cancer free?
Ross: It was quick. So it was incredibly... So May 9th I got diagnosed, in August 23rd of that same year I was diagnosed cancer free.
Jeff: I mean, again, I'm trying to put myself into your shoes in a perspective like that. You're faced with your own mortality, you're faced with all of these things, this roller coaster of emotion constantly, you have such an inspiring outlook on it and I think that has a lot to do probably with being young as we had talked about, death was always on the horizon, but now it's in your face, so you have a different perspective as opposed to someone who's a heavy smoker at 65 or whatever as long as this is my time kind of thing. You had a great support system.
Jeff: And I really love that you were listening to your doctors, you were listening to the people around you, but you weren't actively going out and trying to self-diagnose. In fact, when the surgeon's telling you these statistics, all I kept picturing was Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon telling C-3PO, "Don't tell me the odds. I made it this far into the minefield without knowing the odds. Don't tell you the odds." I think that's a great perspective to have.
Jeff: And it's just incredible that you went through all of that in such a truncated amount of time when you hear about people who have dealt with cancer for the better part of their lives, or decades or whatever, that's incredible and very inspiring.
Ross: Thank you.
Jeff: I just wanted to say that.
Ross: I appreciate that. I really appreciate, and that's the good luck. Like I said, the diagnosis was not necessarily, and thank you very much. I appreciate the kind words and it means that the bad luck was a diagnosis, but from that point I was just incredibly lucky. The amount of time, because a lot of times people go through chemo and radiation, it doesn't react the way that they would like, and that took two months. I would go to radiation every day during the week and I actually had two different types of chemos. I had a chemo bag that was on me 24/7. So at all times I had chemo pumped through. So that was two months. But a lot of times people will do that three times and that'll take a year and a half and then eventually the cancer, or it doesn't work, the chemo.
Ross: So then they try a different type of chemo and then that chemo might not work. So then they try a different type of chemo and that's where exactly to your point is, it takes a long time. I got super lucky my body reacted incredibly well. I like to think all the positive vibes of my support system and how do they, because I was the vessel for the cancer, but it was, in my opinion 98% of my support system, my family, my close friends and Rick Sicari.
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ross: It was just everyone and I just felt like I was the vessel and I'm going to do the best that I can. I'm going to do it for almost a team event, I'm doing it for you guys, but you guys are the ones that are making it happen. So yeah. So, I survived and then it's like, "Okay. So, now where do we go?"
Ross: I've gotten to pull back the curtain at 26.
Ross: I felt like I was in the perspective of an 80 year old person that's faced death and so now, how do I implement all of the incredible lessons that I had just learned, just about the kindness of people.
Ross: How good different, just how good people can be in general. So, it was just so many different emotions and thoughts. So I get back to my job. It was fantastic job. The people were great, but I get back and I remember the first day I sit down and I get on my Excel, I'm like, this just doesn't feel right. I don't know if I can do this for the rest of my life.
Ross: So I stayed there for a year and during that time, always in the background, I'd still been talking the idea of the charity, and at that time we were, what we had wanted to do was something for cancers that, basically the more uncommon cancers and actually they define the more uncommon cancers as anything besides breast and prostate based on charitable funds received because they receive over 50% of...
Jeff: Make sense.
Ross: Yeah. But-
Jeff: They're more in that popular conversation about when you would talk about cancer, usually those are the two that you hear about.
Ross: That's exactly.
Ross: Yeah. So they occur. So that was the initial idea was why don't we do something for the underfunded cancers? Something like esophageal, but my idea was like, "I don't want it to be exclusive to esophageal. I want to do it all underfunded cancers, like colon cancer and just all of the, brain cancer, all the different cancers." So that was the initial concept. Let's do something in that arena and at the time when I got back to work, at some point I watched Forrest Gump and in the movie he goes on this cathartic run after, I think it's right after his mother passes away, if I remember.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. It literally, she dies and he runs out of the house and goes on, starts running.
Ross: That's exactly.
Ross: Running. So that was, I had this idea, I was like, "Maybe I should just start running." Just go on a run and see where it takes me, but then I would speak to my buddies about it, Rick Sicari part of Albany Distilling, that's part of you guys. I would talk to Rick about it. One of my other buddies, Danieli and just my family too. They talked me off the ledger like, "Maybe that's not a good idea, just to go on a run." Because I literally, I was starting to talk serious. I was like, "Maybe I'll just go on a run for a few months." They weren't like mean, like "Dude, do you think that's like a good idea right after the... Just go, isn't that a little dangerous?" So the idea started evolving like, "Okay. Why don't we, like the Gump concept, but why don't we..."
Jeff: Rein it in?
Ross: "... rein it in." But it was an idea that was thrown out for years through that time where I'd started working. I was going through all these life, this new perspective and how do I implement this new perspective?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ross: So I left my private equity fund after a year and from there I was going to go back to school for my MBA, and I moved in with my parents and I was just studying getting prepared for it, and at that time and I'll tie in life to getting to the Gump run, like that ultimate idea and where we are now, six years ready for that. So, from there I was studying for the GMAT to go back to school for my MBA and people would, I had been involved in real estate before and practiced quite a bit before I got diagnosed actually, and so just done some entrepreneurial things on the side, and then private equity, it's dealing with businesses and basically trying to clean up a business or a business that's distressed and help the business and hopefully sell it at a nice profit, but you're working a lot with basically improving the businesses and that was my background.
Ross: So, I'd worked for a very fancy private equity fund, but I'd done stuff on the side with real estate and what have you, and then during the time after I left, while I was studying Rick Sicari with Albany Distilling, he had gone to, so he had a passion for brewing since we were 18 or as early as he could.
Jeff: I've never met a bigger nerd about brewing spirits than Rick.
Jeff: It's incredible, and for people who are listening or watching this, as they go back to episode six way, way, way back to episode six of this show, we actually had Rick on the show and he literally just blew my mind about his incredible, just passion for it.
Jeff: It's incredible.
Ross: The chemistry and yeah. Just to understand, yeah. And he's had that, since we were 17 or 18 when he started home brewing and just, and he started out solo. It was just a passion type of thing. He thought it was really interesting. So Rick and I, we've been best buds since we were five years old, and we sold the tip sheet, our original job together, we sold the tip sheet outside of the Saratoga Race Track.
Jeff: Shout out to the Pink Sheet.
Ross: Big shout out to the Pink Sheet. So, we sold the tip sheet together and that was our first hustle together because the tip sheet, the top seller would get a bonus at the end of every day.
Jeff: So you got to hustle for that?
Ross: So you got to hustle.
Ross: So Rick and I, we'd carry people's coolers in. We figured out any way to just hustle to sell papers.
Jeff: That's amazing.
Ross: And then what we would do, the top seller, this is where we started an initial partnership. The top seller would get the bonus. So we would go on different days we're like, "How many papers did you sell? How many papers did you sell? How many do you need to be at the top? I'll give you five papers." So, that was where the hustle, the partnership, and we always were like, "We've got to do..." From that we are kids, but we're like, "Well, we're going to be business partners one day."
Jeff: Wow. Five years old?
Ross: Well, we weren't five at that time. We were 13.
Jeff: 13, let's say. Yeah. Yeah.
Ross: 13, but that is-
Jeff: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. But still at that point, you guys are not only doing the hustle but realizing the hustle is the thing, which is something that usually takes a little bit in business, but you guys at 13, realizing that the hustle is a thing and you guys can do it and then being like, "We're going to go into business together."
Jeff: Now, part two.
Ross: Yeah. So yeah. Curtin and Rick experimenting and having this passion for brewing and eventually Rick and I are talking, he's like, "Why don't you come and visit me for a month or two and just learn about the business?" I was like, "I'd love to be involved, but I don't know anything about the whiskey business and the spirits business, vodka." I was like, "I don't really know." So like, "Yeah. That sounds fun." And my background as a CPA in finance, so he's like, "I know I have a bunch of stuff that I could walk on you with and you can help improve these systems." So I was like, "Okay. Let's do it, man."
Jeff: Let's give it a shot.
Ross: Yep. So, flew out to Albany and lived with Rick for a month or two months. Got to meet John Curtin, and it was a bromance at first sight. He's just, that's a big part of me wanting to get involved because I was like, "I got to meet John and see what it sounds like." Immediately I'm like, "I love this, yeah." Hilarious.
Jeff: It's the stepbrothers moments. Or did we just become best friends? Yep.
Ross: Like immediately.
Ross: Immediately. So got to meet John and he's of course a brilliant guy and he's just fun. That was the vibe of all me, so they'd go to the distillery, they were all working in the distiller, while they were distilling the spirits, but then you're working on the QuickBooks and all of...
Ross: ... John's regular, all the different things. I got to really learn in depth about the industry just by being with them on a day. I was with Rick all the time, and I think around that time we had just initially started talking about the Death Wish Vodka.
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ross: I don't know if it was that trip or my next trip up. We got to, I think the first person that I met with John Swedish.
Ross: And that was the same thing with Death Wish. It was like, "I love these guys."
Jeff: The match made in heaven.
Ross: That is.
Jeff: And Albany Distilling has been growing exponentially since then as well, which is awesome, and you've been a part of that as well. Right?
Ross: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I've been in the background. I'm the guy that's, I come up on a trip every two months. I spend a lot, Rick and I will be working on Excel.
Jeff: Yeah. We're making sure the growth is doing it in the right way.
Ross: Yeah. In the background and I mean, I feel bad even taking any credit because every one, it's John, it's Alicia, it's Kyle, it's Luc-
Jeff: They crush it.
Ross: I mean-
Jeff: They all crush it.
Ross: ... [inaudible 00:38:46], they're the magical people. Rick and John, obviously, the guys that are the ones that are leading and all, but that is, I take a little pride in and I can come up every couple and help to be a sounding board and thinking through things and just strategies...
Jeff: Which is awesome.
Ross: ... and do whatever I can to help in any way possible with the knowledge that I have.
Jeff: Which is so awesome. So in the background of all of this with your sister and you, with the dentist practice, with helping out with Albany Distilling, with all of these different things that are happening in your life taking this completely different turn, this Gump run is coming into an actual reality now.
Jeff: Did that happen quickly or was that still that slow turn up until now?
Ross: It's been a slow and we've gone down the idea maze of so many different things that we want to do with it, and it's been how exactly do we implement this idea?
Ross: And eventually, so we eventually, like I said, got talked off the ledge by some buddies like, "Probably not a good idea to run across the country right after..."
Ross: ... let's-
Jeff: That was movie magic by the way. Tom Hanks did not run across the country.
Ross: Shockingly, it did not actually happen with Tom. So, that might've been mentioned at some point.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Ross: "I don't think he actually did that." So the idea was born, why don't we do, so the idea of it is a cathartic. We started thinking more high level, like what is the premise of that run?
Ross: So it's right after, like we said, his mother passes away and it's this cathartic thing, and that's what I was like, "I want to capture this cathartic moment in some way." And if there's any way to bring people into that moment of what I went through just to, and also get the message of early detection and just charity in general, I feel being charitable in general, the more you're around doing any type of charitable thing, you're just more charitable as a person, and it's not necessarily monetarily, it's being charitable and the person that you meet at the grocery store just wanting to make their day a little bit better than it was 10 minutes before they got to see you. So, I think that idea of the cathartic experience and that literally Gump run people would just come on the run and they run with them and they are like, and always in the scenes, all these people, they have these brilliant ideas while they're on the run, like the guy with a smiley face.
Jeff: The smiley face T-shirt.
Jeff: Have a nice day.
Jeff: Oh God.
Ross: So, that idea and we're like, "How can we capture something like that." So, the idea was like, "All right. Well, we're pretty good at throwing events." With Albany Distilling they do a lot of events and then Franklin Alley is, so that is Frank Sicari, Rick's brother and Heidi Sicari his sister-in-law, we're like, "Why don't we do some type of a run, a Gump run from the Albany to Franklin Alley and we can collaborate and the idea to..." So Heidi Sicari, her father passed away from brain cancer and he was going through his treatment towards the tail end of my treatment, and I had a lot of correspondence with Frank more than Heidi at the time. Just telling him my experience with any type of tips and just anything that I could do to help in any way. So she has firsthand experience obviously with the cancer as well.
Ross: So, the idea was basically born, "Why don't we do the Gump run from Albany to Troy to Franklin Alley. We all dress up as Gump..."
Jeff: That's great.
Ross: "The Gump spirit as I'm dressed right now."
Jeff: Now, does it all have to be the running Gump or can it be any version of Gump?
Ross: Any one you want?
Jeff: Any version because-
Ross: There's no-
Jeff: Because the great thing about that movie is there are many different versions of Forrest Gump in that movies.
Ross: Yeah. That is if you want to wear the army uniform.
Ross: Anything you want.
Jeff: The shrimp boat captain.
Ross: The shrimp boat captain, that is, anything you want, and that is just like a fun. The whole idea was just this fun experience where people can come together and just have an incredible day together. We're getting out and we're being healthy and we're running. You don't have to run, there is no rule that says you have to run. You can walk to the ultimate destination.
Ross: The whole idea is just enjoy the hell out of the day.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Ross: Just enjoy it. Some people I'm sure are going to run and try to get the best time possible.
Ross: Other people are going to walk, some people walk, run. What have you, and the other idea, so this is the inaugural event.
Jeff: The first one, yeah.
Ross: The very first one, and the goal is that we have this going on and every year we maybe change a concept a little, maybe we only do everyone's dress as Jenny for that.
Jeff: I love it.
Ross: It's just something to just be fun and just have a nice day and just be thinking about either a loved one that's had cancer or yourself. Just a cathartic event, and then ultimately we'll be doing for this Gump run, we'll be doing the donations. I think it's to Brian, I think that's the type of cancer that Heidi's father had. So the donations will go to brain cancer and that's... What we'd like to do every year is honor someone whether they've had cancer themselves or a family member that's had cancer or they're going through cancer and we'll donate to that particular cancer on an annual basis. So that way it's like we've got something where we're really shooting for a family, and then just the overall experiences, the Gump run and everyone enjoys the hell out of the day.
Jeff: That's so exciting and I know that you guys have slated it for spring of 2020, which is really exciting, and for all of our listeners and viewers, when it gets closer to that, obviously we will be updating them on that kind of thing, but you're also going to have a home base, a hub, a website for it. Right?
Ross: Exactly. Yep.
Jeff: And then will that have donation ability on that website so you'll be able to donate through there or?
Ross: Yeah. So we'll have links to where the ultimate donation page can go and yeah, you'll have all the info and everything that you could ask on that website.
Jeff: That's exciting. That really is. It's really, really inspiring talking to someone like you because you've been through a lot, but you have a great perspective on where you are in this world and what you can do for it. The theme of this show is Fueled By Death. The theme of this show is that we are all going to inevitably leave this world and we all want to do a little bit to change it before we do that, and I think you are the embodiment of that and it's-
Ross: I appreciate that.
Jeff: ... absolutely incredible to hear your story.
Ross: I appreciate that. Yeah. That means a lot. And what I will say too is, the whole experience, I've felt like the vessel and the people around me, they're the stars. Everyone that loved me and... They're the stars of the story. Like I said, I feel just the luckiest guy in the world to have those people and I was lucky enough to survive, but they're the stars for the whole experience and they helped me get through it and now all of them are doing incredible things for themselves.
Jeff: Well, I'm so glad that you were lucky enough to survive because now myself and everyone out there is lucky enough to hear your story.