Mo Collins is not your typical actress/comedienne, because Mo Collins is a GIST survivor.
Born Maureen Collins and nicknamed Mo by her high school theater teacher, she never realized that the passion she felt for making people laugh – which many have witnessed on Mad TV, Parks & Recreation, or movies like “The 40-Year Old Virgin” – would the tool to battle cancer.
Mo was diagnosed in spring 2011 by a stroke of luck when she happened to notice an odd lump in her abdomen.
“I would have done nothing about it. I was 44, feeling healthy, everything was going great for me, but my fiancé, Alex said, ‘You need to get it checked out’.”
Alex’s insistence paid off. She had a primary GIST tumor in her duodenum and was lucky to find a doctor who knew enough to know that she needed to see a specialist.
After being given neoadjuvant Gleevec to shrink the 6 cm tumor, Mo went in for surgery that December. “The hardest thing for me then was that we didn’t know going in what kind of surgery I would have. I was prepared for a possible Whipple. It’s a whole lot to swallow, but that’s when you really find out what you’re made of.”
After surgery Mo was given great news, a Whipple was not needed and they had extracted the tumor with clear margins. “That had to be the greatest moment of my life when I first woke from surgery and they told me I had plan A, which was the good plan. There was nothing in my life before that could compare to that feeling.”
Now, Mo is over a year NED and keeping a positive outlook on life despite GIST, partially because she has seen first-hand the negative effects fear & worry can have on a body. Within the month before starting treatment, Mo’s fear and anxiety over her cancer diagnosis dominated her life.
“Within the month before I started treatment, my tumor started growing so fast that it increased from five cm to six cm and I realized the power of fear. I realized I had to find a way to not be afraid. Fear is something that we create.”
Mo Collins, as Joan Callamezzo planking on “Parks and Recreation”
Now Mo is using the power of positive thinking each and every day, “I talk to myself a lot. I tell myself that it’s just a cell—I diminutize it. Nutrition and exercise keep me above my fear. They build my armor. I feel like I’m winning. I say, ‘This is good for me; there’s no way cancer can get through this.”
Mo believes that the battle against GIST is fought not just with treatments and surgeries but within yourself, “You’ve got to stay happy. You need to stay mentally on top of this. That’s where the battle is truly won. I’ll do everything I can to stay on top of it, I’ll do the things I need to get positive and then I feel better.”
However, life for Mo isn’t always a walk in the park. Mo, like most GISTers, struggles with side-effects like fatigue and edema of the eyes, which can make her look worn down and drunk-looking. For an actress it can be a particular challenge, “I call them my fetal pig eyes. For me to audition and go on camera, it takes a whole different kind of mental strength.”
In fact, her recurring role as Joan Callamezzo on NBC’s Parks & Recreation has been a blessing in disguise. “Joan has been a drunk lately so it’s kind of a relief.”
Besides Parks & Recreation, Mo has been doing a lot of voice work, which can be a safe haven of sorts, “I can sit and do it and not be tired!”
While fatigue is a big problem for her, in typical Mo-fashion she’s battling it by staying fit.
“What I started to do is bench pressing. It takes 10-15 minutes, and my sweet Alex trains me. When I’m done I’m not physically exhausted, I’m not run down, I’m strong. I’ve never been able to do a pushup and now I do three sets of them post-GIST! I like that it makes me feel strong.”
But it’s her passion for laughter that is her biggest weapon against GIST, “My gift here on this planet is that I’m a story-teller and a funny person. I need to do it. I need to get up there and laugh and I need other people to laugh with me. It’s kind of selfish actually.”
But Mo is using this gift in a very selfless way by organizing a comedy fundraiser for the Life Raft Group and GIST research. Bravely coming out as a cancer survivor in a tough business, Mo is using her diagnosis experience to try to increase GIST awareness so that no patient goes to a doctor that doesn’t know what GIST is.
“I want to go have fun. I need this for me. But we need money for research. This is part of what I’m supposed to do—talk about it, laugh about it, and shed some light on it so that others who don’t understand GIST may come to understand it because of the humor.”