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Colon cancer killed their loved one. Now they're fighting back.

Posted at 11:40 AM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 18:36:05-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- He left this world three years ago, but Gabe Rodriguez still has an impact on the lives of others.

Nieces Eva, Charlotte, and Juliet Gardner find inspiration in the man they miss.

“It was really hard for the whole family,” Charlotte Gardner said. “He wanted everyone else to be happy. If everyone else in the room was happy then he was happy.”

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In November 2017, the father of two was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer.

“He would be the last person I would have thought would be so defeated by this awful disease,” 16-year-old Charlotte Gardner added.

Rodriguez fought for a year and a half. The cancer proved too much.

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“It was so hard to watch someone so strong that you’ve looked up to for so long be slowly killed by such an awful illness,” Juliet said.

Rodriguez passed away on June 8, 2019. He was 45 years old.

“I never thought a healthy 45-year-old man could get colon cancer and pass away from it,” Charlotte said. “I would have thought that it was [a disease for someone more] in the range of 70 on or 60 on, you know?”

The siblings didn’t just want to just mourn Gabe Rodriguez’s loss. The sisters are taking action. Last year they formed the Junior Board at Hitting Cancer Below the Belt.

“We want to learn about it. But we want other people to learn about it too,” Eva said.

Members from high schools in Henrico, Richmond, and Chesterfield encouraged classmates to think about the dangers of colon cancer.

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“I thought ‘No way am I going to consider worrying about this.’ But now I know I do need to worry about it,” Eva said.

The Gardners admitted it may be a difficult topic to address with fellow teens, but the alternative is unacceptable.

“I would say it is not something you would bring up as a conversation starter and talk about for too long,” Charlotte said.

Gabe Rodriguez was not an outlier.

Statistics show more young people are diagnosed with and dying from the disease — an illness that can be treated if caught early.

Mindy Conklin founded Hitting Cancer Below the Belt.

“If we’re going to prevent this disease we have to be in the high schools,” Conklin said. “So when they brought this idea to HCB2 to actually start a junior board because they wanted to bring information to their peers it was an immediate ‘Yes.’”

Conklin knows how colon cancer can devastate a family. Her husband Rich died from the illness in January 2011.

Rich was 43.

“There is so much silence that surrounds this disease at every level,” Conklin said.

When thinking of the life-saving work the teens on the junior board have taken on, Conklin swells with pride.

“These girls loved their uncle. They still love their uncle and they’re doing this because they don’t want any other family to have to go through what their family went through,” Conklin said.

Eva, Charlotte, and Juliet said it’s time to talk colon cancer, especially among teens and young adults.

“So I think we are as driven as it's going to take and I hope that it will be successful and I think we’re going to keep going till it is,” 13-year-old Juliet said.

The sisters said shining the light on the disease just may save lives.

“We can help prevent this at a young age by eating probiotics. Eating healthier foods. Staying active,” Eva said.

Their effort is also helping honor the legacy of their beloved uncle who is missed every day.

“I would say this is for sure we are doing for Gabe. I’m sure if he were looking down he would be proud,” Charlotte said.

If you know a high school student who would like to the Junior Board Hitting Cancer Below the Belt would like to hear from you.

The non-profit’s Boxer Brief 5K is June 11at City Stadium and registration is now open.

Greg McQuade features local heroes in a weekly “Heroes Among Us” segment. Watch Greg’s reports Thursdays on CBS News at 6 or here on WTVR.com. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured on “Heroes Among Us,” click here to email heroes@wtvr.com.

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