This story originally appeared in Positive Thinking magazine.
"Being diagnosed with cancer was one of the best things that happened to me," Molly McMaster, 31, declares with such conviction that you'd think she never had a moment’s doubt that she would survive.
Far from it. Molly was diagnosed on February 19, 1999, her twenty-third birthday. Back then, she was a student at Colorado State University—active, in shape and in love with ice hockey. She worked part-time at a rink and played hockey regularly. In the fall of 1998, her health started going downhill. She felt tired and nauseated. She suffered bouts of abdominal pain, sometimes so severe that she couldn’t walk. "Hockey and school stopped being fun," she recalls.
She saw a doctor who told her it was most likely irritable bowel syndrome. But Molly's condition worsened. She had to give up her job. By February, the pain had grown so unbearable, she left school and went home to Glens Falls, New York, to try and get to the root of her health problems. Within less than 24 hours of her return, she was in the operating room undergoing emergency surgery for what she believed was a total blockage in her large intestine.
Her diagnosis turned out to be something she'd never considered, something much worse: Stage II colon cancer. Molly’s initial reaction was that she was doomed. "I remember feeling like I was tainted in some way," she says. "I was that poor girl with cancer." She even thought about how she might painlessly end her life instead of enduring a protracted, agonizing battle with the disease.
Then, right after she received the diagnosis, she got a phone call from a friend. "Rocky called to wish me a happy birthday. I told him I had cancer. He said, 'That stinks but you’ll get through this.'" His straightforward statement jump-started Molly's fighting spirit. “I thought, you know what, he's right. I am." She leaned on her friends and family even more as she went through eight grueling months of chemotherapy. "Without them to push me through the recovery, I don’t know where I'd be,” she says. Not everyone was supportive. "I had some friends who just stopped calling," she says. "When that happened, it hurt. My true friends stuck by me, though."
Molly also drew strength from a source she hadn't expected: other patients. She saw the same people almost every time she went in for chemotherapy. "There is always someone who is doing better than you and someone who is worse off. When I went in for chemo, there was this woman who was always smiling. We would talk, and she was worse off then me, but there she was with that smile. She would tell me, 'You have to think, I'm going to get through this. I'm going to win.'"
Molly did. She beat cancer, and she's convinced that keeping a positive attitude played as vital a role in her survival as surgery and chemotherapy. Determined to share her message of hope, in May 2000, she set off on a journey that she called Rolling to Recovery—2000 miles from New York to Colorado on inline skates. She covered the distance in two months and collected more than $60,000 in donations for cancer charities.
That was just the first of what Molly calls her "crazy projects" to raise awareness of colorectal cancer. Another is the Colossal Colon: a 40-foot long, 4-foot tall crawl-through model of the human colon, complete with examples of healthy colon tissue, various diseases of the colon, polyps, and various stages of colorectal cancer. "An educational tool like no other!" Molly says. The Colossal Colon was built in memory of an online friend named Amanda Sherwood Roberts, who died of colon cancer in January 2002, at the age of 27. "I promised Amanda that I would continue to raise awareness," Molly says. "It has become my mission in life."
To further her mission, she and Amanda's cousin Hannah Vogler founded their own nonprofit organization, The Colon Club. Their goal is to use creative ways "to educate as many people as possible, as early as possible, about the risk factors and symptoms of colorectal cancer" and to encourage people to get screened.
Cancer didn't mean the end of Molly's life, as she'd initially feared. If anything, her experiences helped her see her life in a new, more positive light. As Molly puts it, "Cancer made me realize that I can make an impact, and that I have a purpose."