"The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after the fall."
These are the words I'm trying to live by. My name is Molly McMaster and I'm a colon cancer survivor.
I was diagnosed with Stage II colon cancer on my twenty-third birthday, February 19th, 1999. Since then, I've committed myself to raising awareness of the disease that could have killed me, and has already taken the lives of many friends.
I've lived in upstate New York for most of my life, but moved to Colorado to attend Colorado State University in 1995. When I first arrived, I had visions of myself skiing, rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking-basic "Colorado thoughts." Never had I dreamed of the life that I was about to begin. Hockey! The best sport in the world!
I began playing in late 1995 and quite literally fell in love with the sport. Everything about the game made my heart race. Have you ever felt sweat trickle down your face and sting your eyes after a hard shift? Or smelled the salty, wet and sweaty palm of a hockey glove or an ice rink after a big game? Those are the things that I've grown to love.
I spent four years of my life living that game and learning a lot about myself through it. Every free moment I had was spent on the ice or in the weight room, and when I saw the U.S. Women's Ice Hockey Team win the Gold medal in Nagano in 1998, I began having dreams of someday representing my country on the ice.
I was having the time of my life in Colorado until everything came to an abrupt halt in February of 1999. I'd been having severe abdominal pains since October of 1998, so extreme that on some days I couldn't walk. Finally, after many tears were shed, I packed the car and drove back home to New York in hopes of finding the root of my pain. It didn't take long.
I arrived in Glens Falls at 11:30 p.m. on February 11th, and within twelve hours, I was in the Emergency Room with a total blockage in my large intestine. "Did I swallow a tennis ball?" I asked myself.
My doctor performed emergency surgery the next morning and removed over two feet of my large intestine and a tumor the size of his two fists. I spent the next eight days recovering and calling the hospital my home.
Friday, February 19th, it was my twenty-third birthday and one I'll never forget. My surgeon came to visit me that morning, and those first few moments he spent with me are still just as vivid today. He pulled the privacy curtain, sat on the edge of my bed and gripped my hand with a sweaty palm. He used big doctor words, and and "cancer" words that I'd never heard before...the ones he'd probably learned during his twenty years of medical school. Finally, he made it clear. The tumor he had removed was malignant. I had colon cancer.
I didn't hear a single word out of my doctor's mouth for the next twenty minutes, or maybe it was only five. I don't even know. Time had stopped.
Have you ever thought about what it would feel like if someone told you that you had cancer? What would you do? I was twenty-three years old and had never even considered it. My initial thought was, "I'm going to die." I'd already given up. Then I began thinking of the most perfect and painless way to kill myself. Running the car in the garage sounded good. And how could this have happened to me, anyway? I wasn't at risk. It didn't run run in my family. I was a healthy, twenty-three year old female, who worked out regularly, only had an occasional drink, didn't smoke or do drugs, and there I was with cancer.
During my chemotherapy, I had plenty of time to be angry at my doctor for misdiagnosing me with constipation, and I wanted to know why? I had had all the symptoms and she never even tested for colon cancer. I found out later that she never asked me an important question about my family history - "Do you have a family history of colon polyps?" Instead, she had only asked if there was a history of colon cancer. Soon after my diagnosis, I found out that my mother had a polyp removed at age 32, which meant that I should have been tested for it at age 22.
Since my diagnosis, I have met many more like me, young and misdiagnosed with colon cancer. I've made it my life to raise awareness by doing "crazy things" to draw attention to the disease. During the summer of 2000, I inline skated two thousand miles from New York to Colorado, in a trip called Rolling to Recovery, and my latest stunt has been the Colossal Colon.
Colon cancer is ninety percent treatable if caught early enough, and one of the only forms of cancer that can be removed before it becomes cancer, just by removing a polyp (a grapelike growth on the inside of the colon). Since the most common symptom of colon cancer is no symptom at all, everyone needs to get a colonoscopy when they turn fifty, no matter what they think their body needs.
If you are under the age of fifty and experiencing symptoms like I was, please see a doctor and be persistent. Only you know your body and only you know when something is wrong.
Today, Molly is 30 years old and over seven years cancer free. She resides in Wilton, NY and in her free time she plays with the Arctic Foxes and the Hudson River Waves women's ice hockey teams in Clifton Park, NY. She has received many awards, including the 2001 American Cancer Society's Hope, Progress, Answers Award, the 2002 Adirondack Athlete of the Year, by the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, 2002 Rotary Citizen of the Year, The Colon Cancer Alliance's 2003 Voice Award, The Colon Cancer Network's 90 in 9 Advocacy Award, and in 2003, Molly joined past winners Katie Couric and Marlo Thomas as the recipient of Memorial Sloan Kettering's Cancer Center Tavel-Reznik Award, which honors an outstanding leader in cancer education and awareness.
Molly has been able to tell her story in such publications as Parade Magazine, American Hockey Magazine and SELF Magazine, has been featured in Dave Barry's column as well as on The Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! She is also currently writing a book about her experience and speaks regularly on the subject of colorectal cancer. She remains an advocate because she connects to so many different people and hopes to be able to use that connection to teach people about this highly preventable disease.
In 2003, Molly founded The Colon Club with Hannah Vogler, cousin of Amanda Sherwood Roberts. The Colon Club educates younger people about colorectal cancer in out-of-the-box ways.