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Outrunning cancer

Cross Country ActionFor as long as he can remember, Ross Mullooly has been competing for something. By age 3, he and his sister, Leila, had turned recreational trips to the pool into spirited swim meets. That youthful yet competitive drive eventually led the siblings to state championships with the Vandebilt Catholic High School swim team.

During high school, Ross also began running cross-country, outracing his opponents and catching the attention of the Nicholls track coach, who offered him an athletic scholarship. Once his sneakers hit campus, Ross made an immediate impression — competing in all five cross-country meets his freshman year, joining several campus organizations and making the honor roll.

But after his sophomore season, the 5-foot-8-inch runner found himself in a doctor’s office, searching for answers. Why he was losing so much weight? Why was he finding it harder to run?

The answer: Colorectal cancer.

With those two words Ross was on the starting blocks of a new race — the race for his survival.

Running is my freedom

For Ross, cross-country running was a happy coincidence. By his freshman year in high school, he was already a force in the water, earning a spot on the all-state swim team. Racing on land didn’t interest him until his coach suggested that running could strengthen his skills in the pool. Soon, Ross realized that his feet could take him virtually anywhere — without the hassle of borrowing his parents’ car.

“I enjoyed the freedom of it,” he says. “That’s what led me to join the cross-country and track and field teams that next season. It was a bit of a drastic change for my muscles, though, because I was using completely different parts of my body to compete.” Ross soon realized that the endurance and breathing techniques he developed in the pool came in handy on the track. The stronger leg muscles he built on the track also helped his swimming. It was the best of both worlds.

For the next three years, he earned five all-district and all-parish honors in cross-country and track, as well as 2008 all-state honors in cross-country. During his 2009 freshman season at Nicholls, Ross marked a career-best 8K time of 28:50 in the Southland Conference Championships. Clearly, competing against some of the country’s most elite distance runners didn’t seem to slow Ross down.

Something isn’t right

The summer after his freshman year, Ross sensed something was wrong. He felt more tired than usual and was experiencing shortness of breath while running. But Ross chalked it up to stress. His first year of college had been a hectic one. He had not only juggled the responsibilities of schoolwork and college-level athletics, but he had also joined the Student Government Association, Orientation Team, the University Honors Program and Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity.

During his sophomore season, he pushed through the warning signs, consistently going to practice and competing at meets. But James and Monica Mullooly grew concerned at the sight of their visibly weakened son, who had suddenly lost 28 pounds.

“When they came to see me run in the meets, they saw how much weight I had lost and how my times weren’t as good as they had been,” Ross recalls. “They finally convinced me to see a doctor.”

At first, doctors said his symptoms seemed like a clear case of mononucleosis.

“I was basically sleeping all day, except to go to practice and to class,” Ross recalls. “But I thought I could run through it and it would eventually go away as the season went on.”

Despite numerous tests, countless doctor visits and a lot of rest, Ross wasn’t able to run with his teammates at the cross-country championships. Nearly two weeks later, on Nov. 10, he received his diagnosis — stage 3 colorectal cancer.

“My initial reaction was somewhat of a panic attack of questions,” Ross says. “The questions shot at me from all directions. Am I going to live? Will my life ever be normal? Is there a possibility that I can return to running? The most daunting question of all was: How will my family be affected?”

Triumphs and setbacks

Cross Country ActionIn April 2011, Ross successfully underwent colorectal surgery, aided by a blood drive that his parents and Vandebilt Catholic sponsored. More than 86 units of blood — many donated by Nicholls students, faculty and staff — were collected.

“At that point, I didn’t even know that I would need to have blood donated to me,” he says. “Never in a million years would I have expected that amount of people to give blood. I am so grateful to them and Vandebilt.”

A series of setbacks followed. His weight remained below normal as a result of his radiation treatments. He had colostomy surgery, requiring him to wear a colostomy bag for more than two months. When he attempted to return to school for the fall 2011 semester, he discovered that he was anemic and needed to receive nutrients intravenously. The sleep needed for recovery did not come easily.

“I wouldn’t call running around to the doctors and dealing with the hospitals rest,” he says. “The biggest fight you have is staying outof the hospital so you can really rest.”

During his hospital stays, he kept in touch with his classmates, teammates and fraternity brothers through text messages and email — not wanting them to see him suffering. When he was feeling stronger, he attended cross-country practices, cheering on his teammates.

“It meant a lot seeing him still support us after he was diagnosed,” says former teammate Tyler Folse (BS ’12). “It motivated us as a team because we knew that no matter what we were going through, it was nothing compared to what he was dealing with. He never uses his situation as an excuse to quit — only as motivation to get back out there to do what he loves, and we all want that for him as well.”

A rollercoaster of emotions

According to the American Cancer Society, people at high risk for colon cancer are in their 60s, of African-American or Eastern European descent and have a family history of the disease.

Ross is 21 years old, Caucasian and has no family history of colon cancer. His case is so rare that it has spurred a movement of colon cancer testing for younger age groups. Doctors hope that earlier detection and treatment will lead to better long-term outcomes.

“People have become more aware of it since my diagnosis, younger people, too,” Ross says. “That’s something I can feel good about, having possibly saved somebody else from going through this.”

As of now, there’s no set timeline for when Ross will fully recover. In July, doctors found that the cancer cells had returned but are hopeful that they detected them early this time. Ross reminds himself of the quote, “Life can only give a test of a person’s spirit or will, but the person tested is what decides if he passed or failed.” He’s taking it day by day, using his downtime to get together with his family and take stock of the things he can control.

“All I can do is remain positive,” he says, “because I refuse to allow myself to mope around and feel sorry for myself and get worse.”

Ross tries not to place too much pressure on himself, but he hopes to return to school and the track. Not once, during the most strenuous test of his life, has he given up hope that a sense of normalcy will return.

“I’ve always believed that if you never test yourself, you’re not going to go as far as you could,” he says. “I want to go as far as I can. I plan on joining as much as possible at Nicholls because I want to repay them for what they’ve done for me.”

Ross credits Nicholls and the Department of Athletics for handling his situation with respect and care — helping him with classes, lending their support, allowing him to keep his scholarship while attempting his comeback.

Of all the metaphors that could be used to sum up Ross’ life at this juncture, the grueling, winding long-distance race seems to fit best.

“I feel that it has been like a race, and although it didn’t start out so well, I think it’s starting to come together,” Ross says. “I don’t just want to be good for a short time, then relapse; I want to be able to outrun this thing for good, with no regrets.”

— Written by Clyde Verdin Jr., director of media relations for athletics

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

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