On December 4, Matthew Jalazo is participating in the ‘Daytona 100’ (a one hundred mile ultramarathon) to advocate for and honor his good friend Crystal Ortner, a stage IV colorectal cancer patient who has courageously fought this disease for over two years. As a part of this effort, he is raising money and working to spread awareness of this disease. He has already raised nearly $12,000, but this is just the beginning!
On Saturday, December 4th, 2021, there will be a national virtual walk (Walk A Mile (Or More) in Crystal’s Shoes), occurring in conjunction with Matthew’s ultramarathon. You are invited to join him, Crystal and others across the country for this emotional and groundbreaking event – when they seek to promote further awareness, hope and strength for colon cancer patients and their families.
We wanted to learn more about Crystal and Matthew, and they graciously agreed to take a break from training and planning to answer some of our questions.
Colon Cancer Coalition: Crystal, can you please share your story with us?
Crystal Ortner: I lived a healthy, active, organic, pescatarian lifestyle, and had no risk factors for colon cancer. Despite having a family history of a grandmother who developed stage I colon cancer in her 70s, I was not considered high risk. Doctors informed me I would not need my first screening colonoscopy until age 50.
But when I was only 34-years-old I was experiencing increasing abdominal pain and narrowing stools. Since my grandmother was a second-degree relative, insurance would not cover the cost of the lifesaving initial colonoscopy that ultimately led to my diagnosis, but I fought for one anyway.
After the colonoscopy, surgery was required. While in surgery they discovered the cancer was stage IV and had aggressively spread throughout my peritoneum. I required chemotherapy, more surgery, and an ostomy bag.
What devastated me most was my children. The thought of leaving them motherless haunted me to my core, but left me with an unwavering will to survive. After six chemotherapy treatments, HIPEC surgery, and a colon resection, my surgeon said all the cancer was gone. Despite being declared No Evidence of Disease (NED), I was scheduled for six additional rounds of chemo as precaution and protocol.
After my 2nd chemotherapy treatment, my bowel perforated, leading to septic shock and a two-month hospitalization. Eventually, I recovered and a few months later they reversed my ostomy. I enjoyed 16 months being cancer-free, until my world came crashing down again this past summer (2021) when I experienced a recurrence. Another six rounds of chemotherapy, a second HIPEC surgery, and removal of my ovaries awaited me.
During this time, my dear friend Matthew stepped in to help me put an idea I had into action… to use my experience as a way of preventing others from experiencing a similar fate. I wanted to spread awareness, advocacy, and never let anyone fight alone. He took the reins when I couldn’t, and has gone above and beyond in creating a movement that far surpassed what I thought was ever achievable. Through this effort, I received support far and wide from my community – both from those I knew, and many I’ve never met – all reaching out to help me and others like me! I am deeply touched, inspired and motivated, knowing I am not fighting alone.
I have miraculously fought my way back to No Evidence of Disease (NED) once again, while I continue to recover. My hair, while short, is starting to grow back. My body is slowly gaining strength. I can once again see the light. A reminder that I can heal again, and that I am never alone in this journey.
CCC: Matthew, how do you and Crystal know each other and why did you decide to do this ultramarathon in Crystal’s honor?
Matthew Jalazo: Crystal and I first met several years ago, well before she was diagnosed, as psychologists working at the same group practice.
Because our offices were close, I would often see Crystal accompanying young children to her office. As these children often exhibited emotional and behavioral difficulties, these were not always ‘quiet journeys.’ I distinctly recall how they consistently appeared more ‘at ease’ after leaving her office. It was then that I began developing the sense that Crystal possessed an exceptionally calming spirit, one that positively impacted people who were struggling.
Crystal and I quickly became close colleagues and friends, as I appreciated her quick wit and infectious laugh! When I left our group practice to seek other professional goals, however, we unfortunately drifted apart.
Over subsequent years, I lost three close friends, all similarly young in age and with recent or historical cancer diagnoses. Approximately a month after my most recent loss, I learned Crystal had experienced a recurrence of stage IV colon cancer. I remember that moment and the accompanying feeling vividly, like someone had punched me in the throat. I simply could not believe that this kind, giving, compassionate human being was experiencing a type of cancer that I typically (and erroneously) associated with individuals who were elderly and in far worse overall health.
Whether it was due to the accumulating emotional impact of the past losses, or having been a twenty-year cancer survivor myself, I knew I had enough. Enough of experiencing the helplessness associated with knowing that those I cared about were struggling with an illness that I could not halt. Enough of watching lives altered, shattered, or altogether lost. In subsequent weeks, as I reconnected with Crystal and experienced how her illness had ravaged her life over the preceding two years, I started experiencing that same helpless feeling.
So, I decided to act.
CCC: A one hundred mile ultramarathon is a heck of a walk! Matthew, what do you do to keep yourself motivated along the way?
MJ: Over the nearly seven hundred miles I have walked these last several months to prepare for this one hundred mile ultramarathon, I have remained driven by a desire to provide Crystal with a renewed sense of purpose. In speaking more with her and her family, I also came to learn just how much she had dedicated her life to helping others and that she viewed her cancer as another opportunity to give back. Even though she was physically compromised and undergoing chemotherapy, she wanted to spread awareness of her illness so that others could be spared. That level of altruism, the desire to advocate, despite experiencing the grueling effects of her cancer, astonished me.
Simply reflecting on how relentless Crystal has been and continues to be, in trying to promote awareness of her illness because she wants to spare others, is the only motivation I have needed. I am beyond proud to serve as an ambassador for her, and her cause.
CCC: We know there are many worthy organizations out there that help in the fight against colon cancer. Can you share why you two chose to work with the Colon Cancer Coalition?
CO: Through the darkness, I have walked and I know there is still light. It is organizations like yours that demonstrate that despite loss, suffering and all odds against you, there is a cancer community in your corner, there to help. I wanted to join a cause greater than myself and to continue our journey to spread awareness, support others through their fight, save others from this path, make change and move mountains! I believe, together, with your organization, we can do that!
MJ: From the beginning, my efforts have solely focused on advocating for what Crystal wants. So, once she chose to support your organization, there was nothing for me to say!
CCC: This fundraising campaign has been tremendously successful, and it’s not done yet! Why do you think it’s resonating with so many people?
CO: I believe there is a certain shock value associated with seeing a young, healthy mother diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and that, despite facing such horrific odds, seeing the goodness that still exists in others. With everything that Matthew has done to “walk in my shoes,” to support me, to lift me up, and go the distance in creating a movement that will make the change we hope to see in this world. I believe that people are being emotionally moved by that.
Our story shatters the myth that anyone is safe from cancer, while simultaneously highlighting true friendship and the amazing impact of the benevolence of others. Most people will know at least one person in their lifetime that faces cancer, and to feel like you can make a difference is incredibly empowering. How can such struggle, friendship, camaraderie and hope be ignored? It is what sustains us as humans, pushes us forward to be better and do better, symbolizes that anything is possible, and that heroes still exist!
MJ: Initially, Crystal and I received a lot of emotional support and donations from those you would expect… friends, family and patients within the cancer community. After I proposed to Crystal that we couple my attempted 100-mile ultramarathon on December 4, with a national virtual walk, the level of support we received grew exponentially to include people from the broader medical, mental health, military, and educational communities.
I strongly believe that our simple, yet universally powerful message to take the time to simply “walk in someone’s shoes” resonates as a part of our collective human experiences. Whether someone is experiencing colon or another form of cancer, a different chronic and debilitating illness, or other challenging life circumstances, people want to be heard. They want to feel like they are not alone, and that others will reach out and make efforts to understand what they are going through.
We also live in a highly divided age, where differences are highlighted and similarities are minimized or discounted. I believe that the tremendous outpouring of support we have been receiving from people across the country, across backgrounds, is because the effort reflects a broader desire for people to reconnect. Underneath everything, we are all the same and want the same basic things, for others to care about us and “have our backs.” I like to think that what Crystal and I are doing is serving as a reminder of that.
CCC: Matthew, you’re a cancer survivor yourself. How do you approach conversations with other survivors, and what’s something you wish people did better in supporting survivors?
MJ: This is a complex issue, because I believe that while we all value some degree of connection as cancer survivors, expressions of what that should look like differ from person to person. Some people may want overt expressions of caring: phone calls, emails, cards, help with chores, and so on. By contrast, others may want more personal space, which can reflect a more ‘unspoken’ form of connection, one where people know that their support systems respect their need for privacy and are willing to put their own needs aside.
When I was stricken with testicular cancer twenty years ago, I was living in a remote part of the country, with very little available social support. As such, I did not need personal space, because I already had too much of it. It was a dark and lonely time in my life, but my ex-wife (who was my primary source of support) was incredible. She flew across the country on a red eye flight to make it on time for my cancer surgery, and drove me through mountainous terrain every day for three weeks – two hundred miles a day – to get me to and from radiation therapy. That display of connection is what I needed. I remain eternally grateful to her for doing whatever it took to be by my side.
With that said, I do my best to put my own preconceived notions aside. Everyone experiences cancer differently and needs different things to get through it. In effect, I try my best to put myself “in (their) shoes,” once again.
CCC: Crystal, you’ve talked about the importance of raising awareness of early onset colon cancer. You’re also a mom. What’s something you want other young parents with cancer to know?
CO: I want other young parents with cancer to know they are not alone. I have walked that path, and am still standing. I want them to know that there is help, and to never feel ashamed to reach out, ask and seek support. I want them to know about all the resources available and communities that have their back. I want them to know anything is possible and to never give up and cherish every day with their children. I want them to know they are deeply loved and worthy.
As a mother fighting cancer, my children are my number one priority and motivation. Our family experienced deep trauma that comes with a cancer diagnosis. As a result, I also hope to provide other parents fighting cancer help in how to emotionally support their children as they face this battle. Because cancer doesn’t just affect the patient, it ripples through their life, affecting everyone they know and having an especially deep impact on their closest loved ones, with our children being the most vulnerable.
As I am also a child psychologist, I am currently writing a series of children’s books to help children and their parents navigate and cope, when someone they love is diagnosed with cancer. I want parents to feel supported instead of lost, and for them to feel they have a community of support and resources available to them and their family.
I also have a message for parents without cancer. I wish with all my heart to spread the knowledge to them that I wish I had access to before my diagnosis, to spare them from this same path and save their children from being witness to this harrowing disease. Remember, cancer does not discriminate, no matter how healthy and invincible we feel. So, please listen, read these facts below, and spread them far and wide:
- Colon cancer is increasing at an alarming rate in the young adult population.
- 1 in 5 colon cancer patients are between age 20 and 54.
- The NEW screening age for the general population to start colonoscopies is AGE 45 and even earlier for those with risk factors, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, family history, obesity, diabetes or any gastrointestinal symptoms or disorders. So please see your doctor about when you should start screenings. Advocate for yourself and do not take no for an answer.
- Colonoscopies are basically underrated naps (best nap of my life) and are nothing to be feared. They are easy, you are anesthetized, they are the gold standard for screening and worth every moment to prevent a cancer diagnosis and all that follows.
- Colon cancer is a silent cancer, so most symptoms don’t present until late stage or not at all. Do NOT wait for symptoms to be screened. Know your risk factors, family history and be proactive because colon cancer is one of the only cancers that is completely preventable with regular colonoscopies and very easily treatable if caught in early stages.
- Over 75% of patients have no family history but also, having a family history can double or triple your risk of colon cancer.
- Colon cancer is now the second leading cause of cancer death and is no longer an “old person’s” cancer! In fact, colon cancer is now sadly affecting adolescents and some children.
CCC: What are your hopes for this amazing effort?
CO: My hope is to show that anything is possible, especially when we work as a team. I hope to use this experience to spread awareness and knowledge that can potentially save lives, help other families fighting cancer know they are not alone, and offer support, treatment knowledge, and hopefully one day, assistance in making colonoscopies easily accessible and affordable. We aim to create a movement that will lead to medical and political changes within our healthcare system that will prevent and save others from this growing epidemic.
MJ: Crystal and I hope that our mission serves to promote awareness of this horrific disease and save lives, and provides hope and inspiration to patients and caregivers struggling with its physical and emotional impacts. We also hope that it serves as an example to people from all walks of life that no matter how alone or disconnected you feel from the world around you, reaching out and connecting with others can help make facing difficult life challenges easier.
Crystal and I also wish to continue working with your wonderful organization far beyond our upcoming national virtual walk on December 4, using the momentum from this event towards launching a far greater national (and, hopefully, even international) social movement. Believe me, we have a very big plan for how to do that, and all the pieces are in place! But we aren’t letting that cat out of that bag just yet – so stay tuned!