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Northwell Health hosts celebration for cancer survivors

Fashion designer Carmen Marc Valvo, right, spoke at

Fashion designer Carmen Marc Valvo, right, spoke at a cancer survivors' celebration Saturday. Credit: Alessandro Vecchi

Fashion designer Carmen Marc Valvo, a survivor of colon cancer, vowed Saturday to continue advocating for more research and early screening — all while making awareness of the disease a bit more glamorous.

“I could use my platform, the runway, to make talking about colon cancer more fashionable,” said Valvo, who was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 49. “We are at the stage where breast cancer advocacy was 15 years ago. No one used to talk about breast cancer the way they do now.”

Valvo, 64, internationally acclaimed for creating gowns and cocktail dresses for all kinds of occasions, was the keynote speaker at a celebration of nearly 3,000 cancer survivors who gathered at Northwell Health System’s Monter Cancer Center in Lake Success.

The annual event is sponsored by the Don Monti Memorial Research Foundation, which funds cancer research, education and patient support. The party took place under a white tent with dance music, balloons, speeches and the traditional champagne toast “to health.”

Valvo shared details of his personal story from diagnosis to treatment, speaking of his feelings of fright, worry and guilt that he had survived a potentially fatal illness.

Reluctant to talk about his battle with cancer for two years, Valvo said journalist Katie Couric “pulled me out of my cancer closet” and persuaded him to join the ranks of celebrity cancer advocates during New York City Fashion Week in 2005. Couric became a well-known advocate for colon cancer awareness after her late husband Jay Monahan died from the disease in 1998.

“Taking the stigma away from the disease is how we are going to find a cure,” Valvo said.

Valvo was diagnosed one year before the recommended age for a routine colonoscopy, which screens for colon cancer, and he believes more research must be funded to address the disease in younger adults.

Last week, the American Cancer Society issued a new recommended age to begin screening — 45 — because of the rise in colorectal cancer rates in younger people.

The survivors’ gathering has quadrupled in size since the first one in 1991, organizers said Saturday.

“It shows we are conquering cancer. We are winning the battle — not completely, of course — but when you think back to when there were only 600 people here in 1991,” said Caroline Monti Saladino, president of the Don Monti Foundation.

The foundation is named for her brother, who died of leukemia at age 16.

Northwell treats about 17,000 new cancer patients annually, doctors said. The foundation funds several patient programs there.

Speaker Anila Thomas told the crowd to “take ownership of your survivorship.”

Thomas, of Floral Park, was 25 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer, during her last year of medical school. Thomas, now 31, was declared cancer-free in 2014 and is a pediatrician. She gave birth last October and her 9-month-old daughter, Abigail, was in the audience drawing loud applause.

“Being diagnosed with cancer might have closed certain doors in my life in 2011. But overcoming cancer has opened floodgates to opportunities and relationships that would never have been possible had I not gone through this experience,” Thomas said.