Michelle Swanson: I know he is by my side

Bill Swanson filled rooms with his loud voice and distinctive laugh. He had positive energy and a charismatic smile. In all things, he went all the way. Sometimes, he went even a little further.

For golf outings, his favorite pastime, Bill wore the whole get-up: argyle socks, polo shirt, a cigar in his hand. He ventured with friends to Scotland for the British Open, where he wore a kilt.

There was also the time he swam from a boat off the Virgin Islands to a seaside restaurant named the Soggy Dollar. He laid his dollars out on the table to dry, though they’d just get wet again.


He liked to keep his wallet in order.

“Jeepers,” he’d say.

He also said that he remembered meeting his wife, Michelle Swanson, before she remembers meeting him.

They both worked at Turner Construction. She was married. He was a project executive and engineer. When they met for the first time at a job site, she brushed him off, he’d say. But two years later, when they saw each other again and she was single, he captured her attention. He “chased her down,” he’d say.

They were together for 11 years after that, and then they were married in late 2016.

“He just emulated what a husband, a man was supposed to be,” Michelle says. “He was the protector and caregiver. He treated my sons as his own.”

But, much like a stereotypical male, Michelle says, he ignored the slight discomforts in his body, favoring a doctor-free lifestyle. He brushed off occasional lightheadedness, for example.

In retrospect, Michelle says, his hemoglobin levels were low. The tumor in his colon was sucking up red blood cells. Eventually, he was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer.

Bill died on January 19, 2017, at 53 years old.

“Had he gotten a colonoscopy when he turned 50, had he had blood work done when he was supposed to, had he listened to his body, maybe he’d still be here,” Michelle says. “It’s a highly treatable disease. You shouldn’t die from it.”

Doctors recommend screening starting at age 50 for people at normal risk. Screening should begin earlier for African Americans and those with a family history of the disease.

Bill’s memorial service was at Lutheran church in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He would have been overwhelmed with the turnout, Michelle says.

“I know Bill didn’t realize that he was loved as much as he was,” Michelle says. “This guy lived life hard, he died too young, but he made a lasting impression on everybody.”

After the service, Michelle hosted an open house. Friends and family filled the home, laughing through night, sharing stories of Bill until the wee hours of the morning.

In the weeks that followed, Michelle built a wall around her heart, though. She went full-speed ahead. She was a mom and a hard worker. She couldn’t relax.  

“I didn’t realize until just recently how much losing him affected me, more ways than I thought,” she says.”It’s like half my body was cut off.”

Despite her grief, Michelle got to work, along with with others at Turner Construction, planning a golf tournament in Bill’s memory. The first tournament raised more than $15,000 for the Alliance. Another tournament is planned for this year.

Michelle wants the tournament to be a place where people realize that, sometimes, you have to stop and savor life.

“Don’t get caught up in the day-to-day, take a step back, take a deep breath,” Michelle says. “If people walk away with a couple of those little reminders, and it helps them, that means a lot to me.”

Michelle also said she wants to relay an important message: Listen to you body. Get screened.

Bill would want that.

“I know he is by my side and guiding me,” Michelle says. “I’m incredibly thankful that I had him for the 11 years I had him.”

In March, we observe National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Join us as we build our nation of passionate allies, fiercely determined to end this disease within our lifetime.

Weez Altomari: A way to remember and honor our son

In April 2005, doctors diagnosed Weez Altomari’s son, Greg, with colorectal cancer. He was 34 years old at the time, and part of a disturbing trend of under-50 adults getting colorectal cancer at increasing rates.

The battle against colorectal cancer was long and difficult for Greg, Weez says. Over three years, he had surgeries, multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and even a stay at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, far from the Altamari’s Denver home.

All cutting-edge treatments available at the time were used in his battle, Weez says. At last, four consecutive PET tests showed no evidence of disease in Greg. Doctors declared him “NED”probably the best of all medical acronyms.

“We all thought that, finally, he had jumped that hurdle,” Weez remembers.

But the cancer returned in 2008. With great courage, Weez says, Greg made the decision to stop treatment. He moved in with Weez, a former nurse, and her husband, Alto. Greg died on February 23, 2009.

The Altomari’s were left numb.

“Everything we had to give, we’d given to Greg,” Weez says. “All his physical, emotional, and spiritual careeverything that we had inside of us, we gave to him, and I was running on empty.”

But while Weez and Alto could not immediately 

move on in the face of their son’s death, Greg’s friends started celebrating his life.

They began with a fundraiser for a memorial bench in City Park. Greg’s friends channeled his love for the X Gamesan Olympics-like competition for extreme sportsholding the “G Games,” with a golf club throwing contest, drop-kick basketball contest, and barbecue.

The event continues annually, and the City Park bench bearing Greg’s name overlooks an iconic view of Denverthe lake at City Park, the gold dome of the capitol building, and the Rocky Mountains.

Several friends named their children after Greg, too. Around the US, Weez says, you can find boys named James Gregory, Tobin Gregory, Wiley Gregory, and Mac Gregory. Unfortunately, Greg never got to meet his namesakes.                       

“So we started to see how other people were celebrating our son,” Weez says. “We were kind of paralyzed, and that’s not a good place to be.”

But then, after a while, things changed.

“I decided I had to do something because I was having trouble moving forward and finding a purpose,” Weez says. “What could I do with this tragedy? You can get off your butt, and go do something for someone else.”

Weez placed a call to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, which was then called the Colon Cancer Alliance. The Alliance connected her with the Denver Undy Engagement Committee, a group of volunteers that helps plan the Alliance’s Denver Undy RunWalk.

The Undy is a 5K run/walk and one-miler that aims to get the conversation started about colorectal cancer and raise funds for research, prevention, and patient and family support.

After two years of volunteering“dipping in my toes,” Weez saysa turn of events allowed her to step in as chairwoman, with her husband, Alto, by her side for every step. Together, they and the committee have worked to develop the Denver RunWalk into one of the largest in the country.

All Undy’s have an inflatable colon, but Weez added a giant inflatable roll of toilet paper, too.

Another year, she had a friend stitch a giant 15-foot-wide pair of boxers. Dozens of people could fit inside for team photos.

Last year, Weez wrote an Undy song, a take on “Go Cubs Go” from the 2016 World Series, with participants chanting, “Go, butts, go! Hey denver what do you say? This cancer is going to lose today! “

“It’s been very healing for me and my husband,” Weez says. “It’s given us a purpose, a way to remember and honor our son. It’s given Greg’s life more purpose, too, because we’re trying to prevent young people from getting colorectal cancer.”

Weez says the Undy RunWalk has a made a difference in Denver. People are more aware of colorectal cancer and its symptoms.

“People running around in their boxers gets people talking in a fun setting,” Weez says. “They can learn the signs and symptoms and talk with other people. They learn that, yes, I better find out my family history.

This month, as the buildings light up blue in Denver, they’ll light up for Greg, Weez, Alto, and all who are impacted by this disease.

In March, we celebrate National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Join us as we build our nation of passionate allies, fiercely determined to end this disease within our lifetime.