Todd Colitti was 35. Molly McMaster Morgoslepov had just turned 23. Dana Holbrook was 22. Danielle Ripley Burgess was only 17. And despite their age, they were all diagnosed with colon cancer.
“All our stories are the same. Our doctors said you are too young,” said Colitti, a lieutenant and 20-year veteran of the Waterbury, Conn., Fire Department.
Colitti was in the prime of his life in November 1999 when his doctor began treating him for a bleeding ulcer.
After two weeks, he had found no relief, and after researching his symptoms began to fear he may have colorectal cancer.
“I begged my doctor for a colonoscopy, but he said I was too young for that,” said Colitti.
Eventually his doctor relented and ordered the procedure. When the results came in his worst fears were realized: He was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. His doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of living through the first year.
He made it through chemotherapy, but his doctor told him there was a good chance he would relapse and die within five years.
This November he will celebrate his 12th year as a cancer survivor.
Colitti was one of nearly two dozen colorectal cancer survivors who were at the Huletts Landing Firehouse last Thursday.
Annual visit to Huletts
The visit was part of the 2013 Colondar photo shoot, shot annually in Huletts Landing, and the first appearance of “Coco” the Colossal Colon in the small lakeside community.
The Colondar, a calendar featuring young colorectal cancer survivors, is one of the “crazy ways” the Colon Club educates people about cancers of the colon.
The club was founded in 2003 by McMaster Morgoslepov, a cancer survivor, and Hannah Volger, whose cousin and McMaster Morgoslepov’s friend, died of colon cancer at the age of 27.
McMaster Morgoslepov, who lives in Glens Falls and whose parents, James and Trudie McMaster, live in Huletts Landing, was diagnosed with stage II colon cancer on Feb. 19, 1999, her 23rd birthday.
She was treated for the disease in Glens Falls and survived, but felt compelled to educate other people about the disease.
“I came up with the idea of doing crazy things to raise awareness,” she said.
Her first idea certainly fit the mold of crazy: a 2,000 mile trip on inline skates from New York to Colorado, where she was attending college.
During the trip she received an email from Amanda Sherwood Roberts, a 24-year-old woman who was diagnosed with colon cancer. The two young women, bonded by their common experiences, became instant friends.
Before they ever met in person, Sherwood Roberts nominated McMaster Morgoslepov to carry the Olympic torch leading up the 2002 winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
After she was nominated, the two women got together and told their stories on the Today Show with Katie Couric, whose husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 42.
“She had to cut the show short because she was pretty emotional, but after the show, she said if you do anything for colorectal cancer awareness month, let us know and we’ll have you back on the show,” McMaster Morgoslepov said.
On Dec. 30, 2002, McMaster Morgoslepov carried the Olympic torch through Saratoga Springs. Two days later, her friend Sherwood Roberts died.
“Between Katie’s comment and Amanda’s death, I thought I needed to do something crazy,” McMaster Morgoslepov said.
Colon is born
A few months later she and Roberts came up with idea: the Colossal Colon, a 40-foot long, four-foot-high foam and polyurethane model of the human colon, built by Adironack Scenic in Argyle.
The model features various diseases of the colon: Crohn’s, diverticulosis, polyps, precancerous polyps, colon cancer, advanced colon cancer and hemorrhoids.
In March 2003, McMaster Morgoslepov appeared on the Today Show for a second time, along with the Colossal Colon, and shortly thereafter embarked on a 20-city national tour, gaining notoriety throughout the country. Dave Barry, a renowned humor columnist even wrote about the colon.
“It was the only time I was ever star-struck,” she said. “It was very cool to see Dave Barry sit in my colon.”
Although the colon still tours the country, McMaster Morgoslepov no longer travels with her creation. In fact, last Thursday was the first time she had seen it since 2006. Instead she concentrates on raising awareness in other ways, and raises two young sons with her husband, Sergei Morgoslepov.
One of the projects she has been committed to is the Colondar, an idea that Erika Kratzer, a stage IV colon cancer survivor, came up with in 2004.
The calendar features photographs of colorectal cancer survivors and their stories.
Every year, 12 cancer survivors — chosen through an application process — meet in Huletts Landing for a week of photographs and fellowship at McMaster Morgoslepov’s parent’s house.
“It gives people hope when they see Erika, a stage IV cancer survivor for 10 years on the cover,” McMaster Morgoslepov said.
Collitti, who was Mr. November in the 2009 edition of the Colondar, has been making the trip since 2008, arranging all the food throughout the week.
“I felt so strongly about seeing it succeed that I volunteer to help. I believe in what we do,” said Collitti, who serves on the Colon Club’s board of directors. “By the time it’s over people are lifelong friends. You come out of it a changed person for the better.”
He said each model who shares their story helps other people who have been afflicted by colorectal cancer. “It’s nice because people want to hear the survival stories. To see people who have survived that long is huge. It gives them hope.”
The week brings together current and former models and local residents who have had cancer.
Catherine Aiken, a former Whitehall resident who lives in Huletts Landing, speaks to the models every year.
Aiken was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1950 at the age of 27 and was given a slim chance of survival. She’s a spry 89 years old today and appeared on the cover of the 2010 Colondar, an experience she described as “thrilling.”
Former Whitehall football coach John Millett, one of the most successful coaches in Section II history, also stopped by the firehouse. He’s a five-year cancer survivor.
McMaster Morgoslepov said the goal of the Colon Club and the crazy things it does is awareness.
“I’m sick to death of hearing you’re too young for cancer. It can happen to anyone. If you have a colon you can have colon cancer,” she said.