Molly McMaster was a healthy, 22 year-old student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, when she began experiencing severe abdominal pain in October of 1998. Some days it was so bad that she couldn't walk. Over the next five months, she called and saw her primary care physician numerous times, only to hear the same diagnosis each time - constipation.
Molly, who played ice hockey regularly, was fired from her job at the local ice rink in early February, for missing work due to her debilitating symptoms. As her symptoms began to worsen, she couldn't hold food down for days at a time, had very irregular stools and had lost a lot of weight. Again, the doctor told her that she was constipated, but reluctantly sent her to a gastroenterologist (GI). Molly saw the GI a few days later, and was somewhat shocked when he merely felt her belly, felt her back and told her that she had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a disease characterized by intermittent abdominal cramps and constipation with alternating periods of diarrhea. But Molly knew something else had to be wrong. She packed her car and drove home alone to New York to be with her family and in hopes of finding the root of her pain.
She arrived at her parent's home in Glens Falls, N.Y. at 11:30 pm on Thursday, February 11, and within twelve hours, found herself in the emergency room. A nurse practitioner diagnosed her with a total blockage in her large intestine and said she would need surgery to remove it. The operation was performed the following morning. Twenty-five inches of Molly's large intestine (or colon) was removed, along with a tumor the size of two fists, and she spent the next eight days recovering in the hospital.
Friday, February 19, Molly celebrated her twenty-third birthday in the hospital with worse news than she could have ever imagined. Her surgeon visited her that morning, pulled the privacy curtain closed, sat on the bed next to her and spit out big "cancer" words that Molly had never heard before. Finally, he made it clear. The tumor he had removed was colon cancer, stage II.
Molly didn't hear a single word out of her doctor's mouth after that. Instead, her initial thought was, "I'm going to die." She had already given up. She couldn't believe that SHE could get colon cancer. She wasn't at risk. It didn't run in her family. She was a healthy twenty-three year-old female, who worked out regularly, had only an occasional drink, didn't smoke or do drugs, and she had cancer.
Later that morning, Molly's friend Rocky called to wish her a happy birthday. Molly didn't want to tell him the news, afraid he would treat her differently. She felt contaminated, and didn't want to be known as "the girl with cancer." She finally got the courage to tell him and through her tears, said the words. "Rocky, I have colon cancer."
"That stinks," he said, without missing a beat, "but you're going to beat it because you're Molly and you can."
Molly began eight months of chemotherapy in March of 1999, and had plenty of time to be angry with her doctor in Colorado for misdiagnosing her. Molly wanted to know why? The doctor never even tested for colon cancer, and Molly found out later that she was never asked one of the most important questions about family history: "Do you have a family history of colon polyps?" Instead, the doctor only asked if there was a history of colon cancer. Soon after Molly's diagnosis, she found out that her mother had a polyp removed at age thirty-two which meant that she was considered to be at high risk for the disease.
Rolling to Recovery
One day she asked her father to buy her a plane ticket so she could fly back to Colorado and visit her friends. "Get a job," he said. "Fine. I'll just skate back," she said jokingly, but within a few days, she knew she'd stumbled onto a great idea. She could inline skate to Colorado to raise money and awareness for colon cancer.
After her chemotherapy and during training for the big skate, dubbed Rolling to Recovery, Molly earned a position on the Adirondack Women's Ice hockey Team and brought home a gold medal from the Empire State Games, held in Lake Placid, NY in February of 2000, almost exactly one year to the day of her diagnosis.
On May 20, 2000, she began a 2000-mile inline skate journey from Glens Falls, N.Y. to Greeley, Colo. to raise awareness and funds for the battle against colon cancer. She raised $60,000, which was donated to the American Cancer Society, The Cancer Center at the Glens Falls Hospital and the Sunflower Fund, which assists young cancer victims. The inline trip covered 2000 miles and took 71 days, 100 wheels and five pairs of skates to complete, ending on July 31, 2000.
In November of 2000, Molly ran the New York City Marathon for the New York Apple Association, to raise further awareness of the disease.
Amanda and Hannah
Molly was also nominated to carry the Olympic Torch by another young colon cancer patient, Amanda Sherwood Roberts, of Little Rock, AR. Amanda and Molly had become friends via e-mail during Rolling to Recovery, and found comfort knowing that there was in fact someone else out their like them. They had never actually met in person, until Molly received an e-mail from Amanda's cousin, Hannah, in November of 2001. "Molly, you don't know me, but my name is Hannah, and I'm Amanda's cousin," it started off. Hannah went on to say that Amanda was very sick and wanted to meet Molly in person before she lost her own battle with colon cancer.
Molly flew out to visit Amanda that weekend, and the girls caught the attention of Katie Couric. In November of 2000 they appeared on the "Today" Show, telling their stories. After the interview, Katie Couric told Molly that if she thought of anything crazy to do for National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, to let her know and the "Today" show would bring her back. Molly knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity, and she began to rack her brain.
In the meantime Molly carried the Olympic Torch on December 30, 2001, with Amanda's best friend, Angela, and Hannah at her side. They carried a picture of Amanda as Molly ran, so they could be together, even though Amanda lay dying on her couch in Little Rock. Amanda lost her battle with colon cancer on January 1, 2002, just two days after Molly carried the Torch in her honor.
About the Colossal Colon®
Later in January of 2002, Katie Couric's comment was still fresh on Molly's mind and she decided to build a big colon that she could use to educate the public on how preventable colorectal cancer is. She approached design company Adirondack Scenic, Inc., in Argyle, NY and they gave her a few options. Molly enlisted the help of Maggie Tierney of the Screen for Life program through the Glens Falls Hospital, and Amanda's cousin, Hannah, and together they raised the money to build the Colossal Colon®, a 40-foot long, four foot tall teaching devise, complete with healthy colon tissue, colon polyps, and various stages of colon cancer. In March of 2002, Katie made good on her promise and had Molly, Hannah, and the Colossal Colon ® the "Today" Show.
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 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. She speaks regularly on the subject of colorectal cancer and remains an advocate because she connects to so many different people. She hopes to be able to use that connection to teach people about this highly preventable disease.