America walks in aid of colon cancer


Hundreds of people gathered Saturday morning in their underwear at the Marietta Square to kick off the second Undy 5000 5K Run/Walk in metro Atlanta to fight colon cancer.

Instead of race day T-shirts, participants were encouraged to run in their underwear to bring attention to that area — the one affected by colon cancer. The Undy 5000 was held in 12 cities across the country this year to educate the public about colon cancer, promote screenings and encourage people to talk about the disease. In 2010, the inaugural event in Atlanta raised nearly $60,000.

Colon cancer survivor Dawn Gagliardi of Smyrna, helped to coordinate the event, which was hosted by the Colon Cancer Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based patient advocacy organization dedicated to ending the suffering caused by colon cancer.

“The Undy hits home for me. I’m actually eight years cancer free,” said Gagliard, 40. “I’m really one of the lucky ones considering what I’ve been through.”

In 2002, Gagliardi was constantly plagued with an upset stomach, discomfort, bloating and pain. She attributed it to the stress of having lost her mother to lung cancer in the past year, but decided to see a primary care physician where, after explaining her symptoms, Gagliardi was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome.

After four months of numerous visits to the doctor and medications intended for IBS, nothing seemed to work. Her physician decided to refer her to a gastroenterologist, and she was given a colonoscopy as a safety precaution. At age 31, Gagliardi was immediately diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

“I’m so thankful that I had that doctor because at 31 year old, that’s not necessarily protocol,” she said of her colonoscopy.

While thankful for a correct diagnosis to her problem, the bad news turned to worse news when Gagliardi was informed, after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, that the cancer had metastasized to her liver.

“I look back at it now and still can’t believe I had cancer,” Gagliardi said.

“A lot of my friends and family thought that I wasn’t going to make it. It’s very scary to have your life in front of your face at such a young age and not know whether you’re going to make it or not.”

After years of surgeries and treatment, Gagliardi is now cancer free. Throughout the ordeal, she was determined to maintain her cheerful personality and keep a positive attitude about living life to its fullest. Part of that energy has been thrown into making the Undy 5000 a success.

In 2010, Gagliardi’s team, Blue is the Next Pink, came in first place in fundraising and she finished first in the survivors category of the 5K run.

The Undy 5000, a family-friendly event, was opened to all ages and also featured a mile fun run through downtown Marietta. Each registered participant received a commemorative pair of Undy 5000 boxers.

“They do a very good job of celebrating people and life, and not necessarily being on the downtrodden side of things,” said Adam Kirn, 25.

Clad in a matching orange outfit, Kirn drove down with friends and co-workers from Clemson, S.C., to participate in the Undy 5000. He said he lost his mother to colon cancer and joined the event as a way to “celebrate, have fun and be ridiculous.”

In 2010, Dylan Deal, 33, of Decatur, lost his father, Paul Deal, to colon cancer. He participated in the Undy 5000 with his wife, Katie Arnold, siblings, friends and extended family. The group wore tighty-whiteys.

“I think this will be a tradition,” Deal said of the event.

Erin Ehrlich of the Colon Cancer Alliance said the Undy 5000 is a wonderful event to generate awareness about the importance of colorectal cancer screening and early detection.

“On a more personal level, the Undy 5000 honors those who have fought this disease and won, and also remembers those who fought their battle but unfortunately didn’t make it,” she said.

“People don’t talk about the disease, and that’s a problem because it’s the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, but people don’t know that.”

It’s estimated there will be 101,340 new cases of colon cancer and 39,870 new cases of rectal cancer by the end of the year. A total of 49,380 people are expected to die from both forms of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“Symptoms of colon cancer are rectal bleeding, a chronic change in bowel habits or unexplained anemia,” said Dr. Wayne Ambroze of Georgia Colon & Rectal Surgical Associates in Decatur, past chief of staff at Northside Hospital.

“If any of these symptoms are present, a patient should see their physician to arrange for a diagnostic colonoscopy.”

Gagliardi said her most important advice to anyone who is experiencing similar symptoms as she did is to listen to their body.

“If something isn’t feeling right, check it out,” she said.

“So listen to your body, get screened, be your own advocate and live life to its fullest.”

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