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Chronicle of survivors

Chronicle of survivors

One woman shows a vertical scar from her breastbone to her pubic bone. Another shows a scar just bel
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You might say they’re not your typical models.

One woman shows a vertical scar from her breastbone to her pubic bone. Another shows a scar just below her belly button. A man shows a horizontal scar across his abdomen.

They are among the models for the fifth annual Colondar, an artistic and inspiring calendar designed to educate people about colorectal cancer.

Photographed by award-winning photographer Mark McCarty, the 2009 Colondar features five men and eight women from all over the country who have battled colorectal cancer under the stereotypical age of 50.

“We try to get as much diversity into the Colondar as we can,” said Molly McMaster, 32, of Wilton, co-founder of the Colondar. “We try to make it fun, a little sexy and hip, so people will want to talk about it.”

Each month features a photograph of an ordinary person with an extraordinary story of survival, all of whom were considered too young to have colorectal cancer. By showing off their scars and sharing their stories, they hope to save lives and teach others about colon cancer.

McMaster was a model for the first Colondar shot at her parents’ Lake George home five years ago. Since then, all of the photo shoots have been done at her parents’ home.

“Our main goal was to bring survivors together so they could have fun and form friendships,” said McMaster. “Just to be in the same room with other people who know what you’ve been through is so healing.”

Choosing models

Models are chosen by McMaster and her friend and co-founder Hannah Vogler, from more than 500 applications that people send to McMaster, who find her through The Colon Club, an online support group for young people with colon cancer that also raises awareness.

“We try to get someone who had Crohn’s disease or colitis, someone with an ostomy, someone who had laparoscopic surgery, and we look for all for stages of cancer,” said McMaster.

McMaster was diagnosed with colon cancer on Feb. 19, 1999, her 23rd birthday.

After months of suffering from abdominal pain and being told by doctors that nothing was wrong, she decided to drive to her parents’ home in Lake George from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

“When I got home, my mom made me soup, and I threw up all night long,” said McMaster. “Little did I know there was a tumor blocking everything.”

The following morning, McMaster went to a hospital and had 25 inches of her large intestine and a tumor the size of the doctor’s two fists removed.

At first, McMaster didn’t realize she had cancer.

“I remember the doctor sitting on my bed using a lot of big words,” McMaster recalled. “Then he asked me if I understood.”

When she admitted that she didn’t, he told her she had colon cancer.

Devastated by the news, at first she thought about killing herself. Then a friend called and said, “You’re Molly. You’ll get through anything.”

It took McMaster a few days to come to terms with the diagnosis, but after recovering from several weeks of chemotherapy, she began searching for other young colon cancer survivors and looking for unusual ways to educate people, especially young people, about the disease.

Her first project, Rolling to Recovery, was a 2,000-mile journey on inline skates in the summer of 2000 from New York to Colorado, during which she got an e-mail from Amanda Sherwood Roberts, a woman from Little Rock, Ark., who was diagnosed with colon cancer at 24.

The two women became immediate friends, and Roberts nominated McMaster to carry the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Torch. On Dec. 30, 2001, McMaster carried the torch through Saratoga Springs. Roberts died two days later at the age of 27.

“I remember feeling angry and sad and wondering why I was still here,” said McMaster. “But before she died, I promised Amanda I would do something to continue to raise awareness about colon cancer.”

In 2003, McMaster and Vogler, built the Colossal Colon, a 40-foot long, four-feet tall crawl-through model of the human colon complete with various diseases.

While taking the Colossal Colon on a 20-city tour, McMaster met Erica Kratzer of Blacksburg, Va., who had been diagnosed with colon cancer at age 22.

“I told Erica I was going to start an organization called The Colon Club to raise awareness about colon cancer in unusual ways, and she said, ‘Well, we should do a calendar and show our scars,’ and that’s how the Colondar was born,” said McMaster.

The last weekend in May, survivors are flown in from all over the country with money raised by sales of the Colondars.

“We pick survivors up at the Albany airport in a limousine and try to make them feel special,” said McMaster.

When Karen Bjornland Desjardins, 53, of Greenfield, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 at the age of 44, she didn’t know anyone else with the disease.

“I felt totally alone,” said Bjornland, a freelance arts writer for The Daily Gazette.

Bjornland had heard about McMaster but had never met her until she interviewed her for a magazine article a year ago.

“I went to her home like a reporter, and it ended up more like a support session for me,” said Bjornland. “Molly is such an amazing person.”

Bjornland said she was thrilled when she was chosen to be Miss December for the 2009 issue of the Colondar.

“At first, I was worried about being photographed, but the weekend turned out to be more about being with other survivors,” she recalled. “We sat on a couch and we talked, we listened, we hugged and we cried.”

Bjornland is a survivor of three different cancers. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36 and a newlywed dreaming of motherhood, and ovarian cancer when she was 47. A total hysterectomy meant she could never have biological children, and she and her husband, Dan, lost their chance to adopt each time Bjornland was diagnosed.

“When you are diagnosed with cancer, there’s a roller coaster of emotions: Anger, sadness, fear and disbelief,” said Bjornland. “Your life is changed forever. But life does go on and you don’t want to miss a single second. You no longer get worked up about your birthday. Unlike millions of other people, you are truly happy for every year of your life.”

Lifelong friends

While staying at McMaster’s parents’ home last May, Bjornland led a hike up Black Mountain in the Adirondacks with four other survivors.

“People made what I think will be lifelong friends,” said Bjornland. “We all feel like we are family, and I hope my story will help others.”

McMaster, who plays and coaches ice hockey in her spare time, is married to Sergei Morgoslepov and is the mother of a 20-month son, Kyril. She is also pregnant, due in January. She works from her home.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than a million people during each person’s lifetime under the age of 50 will be diagnosed with colon cancer.

“It matters a whole lot if it happens to you or your family member,” said McMaster.

The 2009 calendar is available online at www.colonclub.com for $16.50.

“Some of our past models have died. So this year, our fifth anniversary, we’ve taken all the photos from the past years and put them on the bottom of the pages as a nice tribute,” said McMaster.

“I want to make sure they aren’t forgotten. One way is to show their faces and tell their stories to show that this can happen to anyone. Don’t let it happen to you.”

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