Fight CRC Ambassador Marijana Kotlaja’s father was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in October 2018. Her father’s diagnosis quickly changed their family’s lives, habits, and perspectives. Marijana’s father had no family history and their family was unaware of the disease until it became their reality.
As a researcher and academic, Marijana wanted to bring awareness to colon cancer and help families have easy access to information. Marijana attended Fight CRC’s Ambassador Training and Climb for a Cure alongside 12 of her fellow ambassadors.
A year and a half ago, I never imagined I would be flying to Winter Park, Colorado to spend a few days talking about colon and rectal cancer. Cancer leaves such a negative impact on those afflicted.
You see, this disease is now a part of my father and family’s life. We never thought that cancer would happen to us, but we’ve learned so much through this process: no one is invincible, life is precious, and the reality of this life is that a lot is unknown. Positive energy, living in the moment, and taking one day at a time is the best for you and those around you.
When I talk with my closest friends or extended family about my father’s condition, the treatment plan, the seriousness of our situation, or my deeper thoughts, I see that it is difficult for them to fully understand what we are going through. I feel like a martian trying to describe an exotic, distant world. But when I met the Fight Colorectal Cancer community in Winter Park, there was an immediate unspoken understanding. We all get it. We all belong. We live in the same world.
But I cannot lie, before I left for Colorado, I was filled with anticipation because I was struggling to talk about my father’s diagnosis with others and this opportunity put me in a setting where I’d have to share my family’s story.
However, the minute I met my fellow Fight CRC ambassadors, I knew I had found a group of kindred spirits. Hearing the ambassadors’ stories gave me the validation that cancer sucks and there is no way around it. Not a whole lot can be done about cancer. There is, however, a lot that can be done about what you do to begin the process of healing.
As new ambassadors, we spent three days together and on the final day at 4 AM MDT we gathered to hike up the breathtaking Mt. Flora (13,164 ft) to honor survivors, those battling cancer, and those who have lost their battle to this terrible disease.
There were many times on the trail, especially during the steep inclines, when we asked ourselves, “What are we doing here?” “Why do we insist on doing this?” However, it soon became apparent looking around at the 130+ climbers that we were hiking because we had collectively decided we were not going to let this disease defeat us—we were climbing for a cure.
Mt. Flora was our escape and our chance to refocus on what’s important. It gave us all strength and it reminded us as new ambassadors that together we can accomplish anything, bit by bit.
It only took 12 ambassadors to share their stories and to slowly realize we are all putting on our armor to become warriors against colorectal cancer. I heard so many incredible stories of resiliency and learned that my family’s battle with cancer isn’t ours alone to carry, rather every warrior needs armor and Fight CRC, family and friends can provide the swords and the shields.
A big thank you to the ambassadors and Fight CRC staff. I’m looking forward to being an ambassador this year and working together with patients, survivors, caregivers, and professionals to push for better policies and support research, education and awareness for all those touched by colorectal cancer.