Cancer Survivor’s Advice: ‘Take Time For Legos’

After Kirk Gunderson was diagnosed with cancer, his 3-year-old son, Garrett, promised to take care of Kirk until he was better. Along the way, he taught his father an important lesson that he now shares with others: Take time for Legos.

Sometimes, the little things in life can mean a lot. That's (literally) the case with the tiny Lego action figure Kirk Gunderson keeps on his desk.

The story behind his Lego friend goes back 3 1/2 years, to when Kirk was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. The rare cancer led him to Mayo Clinic for treatment. After Kirk's first appointment, he and his wife, Jennifer, stopped at their daycare to pick up their 3-year-old son, Garrett. "He told me, 'Daddy, I'm going to take care of you until you're better,'" Kirk recalls. Garrett then asked Kirk if he had to return to work that day.

And while the self-described "very Type A" personality had been planning to do so, "something in me told me to say no," Kirk tells us. Instead, he asked Garrett what he wanted to do. The answer: play Legos. And so they did. "We went home and played Legos, then cars, then went outside. Whatever he wanted to do, we did it," Kirk says. "We did what was important at the time."

The experience that day had a profound effect on Kirk. "Something hit me," Kirk says. "I realized I needed to change my life, change my focus. I got hit over the head with the idea of taking time for Legos."

A year later, Kirk was asked to speak at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in Osseo, Wisconsin, and he decided to share that perspective with others. "Cancer is depressing, and I didn't want to give a depressing talk," Kirk tells us. "So I decided to remind people to take time for Lego moments, whatever that means to them." He wanted to send his audience home with a reminder to make time for those moments, so he decided to buy Lego blocks and hand them out to those who came to hear him speak. Kirk emailed the LEGO Group, explaining his plan and asking if he could purchase 1,000 individual Legos.

At first, he didn't hear back. Then, Kirk received an email. "The Lego people had been passing my email around the company. They wanted to do something to help me, but it took them a while to figure out what they wanted to do." Eventually, the answer came: Lego decided to donate 1,000 Jor-El mini-figures to the cause. "Jor-El is Superman's father, and he always takes care of Superman when the going gets tough," Kirk says. At the Relay for Life event, Kirk's own little caretaker donned a Superman T-shirt and cape to help his dad pass out the mini-figures. (Talk about super cute.)

Lego did make a request with their donation. "They asked me to keep telling my story," Kirk says. He didn't need much convincing. It's a message he often shares, including with those he encounters through his work as a ground operations supervisor for Gold Cross ground ambulance in Northwest Wisconsin. And it's a message that seems to be catching on. "People send me pictures of themselves doing something, and they'll caption it, 'My Lego moment,'" Kirk tells us.

Kirk continues to make time for those moments himself. "The world isn't going to stop spinning if I don't send an email right away," he says. "Work will always be there. But you don't know that you'll be there, or that the people you love will be there. You don't know what tomorrow is going to bring." (Although in Kirk's case, we're guessing there will be more Lego moments.)

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