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 care—everything 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 Games—an Olympics-like competition for extreme sports—holding 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 Denver—the 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 says—a 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.