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UNC superfan, breast cancer survivor sets aside rivalry with Duke to raise $1.5M for research

Pam Kohl put the rivalry aside to help raise $1.5 million to make a new research partnership happen.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A cookie shows how sweet Pam Kohl is on Carolina. She had an edible snapshot of Coach Roy Williams made for her son Max’s Bar Mitzvah. Seventeen years later, the sweet treat is still in her freezer.

“My husband keeps saying, 'Pam aren’t you going to throw away that cookie,' and I just can’t do it," Pam said through the laughter. "Can you believe it? I hope it doesn’t smell when I take it out. To have a picture of my son with Roy, I just couldn’t throw it away!”

Credit: Pam Kohl
Pam Kohl kept this cookie of her son and Roy Williams in the freezer for 17 years.

Like any Tar Heels fan, Pam's always been pretty salty toward Duke.

“I've been part of this rivalry since third grade," Pam said. "It is so fierce and it is a cultural thing. I try to explain to people, my friends, who are not from North Carolina, and they don't always get it. You know, we're two different institutions. We have different cultures. We're a public institution, Duke is a private institution, we're eight miles apart. We're in North Carolina basketball heaven.”

Pam and Max have traveled the country cheering on the Heels yelling loudest anytime they play the Blue Devils. As the Tar Heels won the national championship in 2017, Pam got life-changing news.

“She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, which is, which is the version of breast cancer that kills people,” Max said.

Pam was at the hospital in her Carolina blue hospital gown being treated by someone wearing a Duke blue national championship t-shirt. That got her thinking. Pam is executive director at Susan G. Komen in Raleigh and met cancer researchers at UNC and Duke.

“I knew they were working on important research in their own little tunnels. But I also knew that several of them were working on similar things like immunotherapy and a vaccine and all kinds of things,” Pam said. “It just, you know, was an epiphany for me one day, 'Good grief, is there a way that we can get Duke and UNC to work together to find the cures?”

So Pam called up the head of research at UNC and asked what it would take.

“She said, 'You know, it'll take money.' And I said, 'Well, how much money would it take?' She said it has to be at least $1 million, Pam said. "And I actually think that kind of she thought that that would scare me. And I said, 'We should be able to do that to get Duke and UNC, these rivals, to work together on something so important.”

Between Race for the Cure, speaking across the community, and reaching out to pretty much every person she knows, Pam and her team helped raise $1.5 million for the joint project. Enough to launch the Metastatic Breast Cancer Collaborative Research Institute. Between the two schools, more than 125 researchers are sharing data and it’s already produced new ideas for experiments.

“You know very well, the fierce rivalry I have between Duke and UNC when it comes to Carolina/Duke basketball, but I can tell you that in the labs and in finding the cures for breast cancer, these two institutions are collaborating and working together,” Pam said. “We have a lot of fun and fierce conversations about this rivalry when I'm trying to raise money for this initiative. But, you know, I do find a way to appreciate all the Duke brings to the table and helping to find cures.”

As for Pam’s health:

“I was told initially, I had two to three years to live,” she said. “I'm five years in and I'm only on my second line of treatment. So all that's good.”

She’s even feeling well enough to bite off another round of fundraising and to try to bring in an additional $1 million for the partnership. She said that would be the icing on the cookie. This time with both UNC and Duke in the picture.

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