Mitchell Stolberg, a 19-year-old secondary education English major, spent the past four years pursuing his passion as a member of the color guard in the Colts Drum and Bugle Corps. He had no idea that his love could threaten his life.
Stolberg was diagnosed with skin cancer mid-season his third year in color guard.
Colts Drum and Bugle Corps, fondly referred to as “Colts” by Stolberg, is a travelling team consisting of a hornline, drumline, full-front ensemble and color guard. From March 28th to August 15, Colts compete all over the country with other drumlines.
Competing at a national level demands almost constant rehearsal.
“We rehearse almost every day, outdoors, in the sun from as early as 7 a.m. to as late as 1 a.m.,” Stolberg said.
It was mid-June of the 2009 summer season for the Colts when Stolberg noticed a mole on his left cheek.
“It started to get this weird ring around it, a ring of pink. Then around the pink was a ring of white,” Stolberg said.
Despite its odd appearance, Stolberg thought nothing of the mole and continued with his rigorous rehearsals. By early July, Stolberg was still ignoring the mole, as it was not bothering him.
“I didn’t think of it until I started having problems with my right shoulder,” Stolberg said.
After a night rehearsal, Stolberg felt like his shoulder was “on fire,” so the next day, while in Omaha, NB, Stolberg went to the emergency room.
Stolberg called his mother, Wendy, to let her know he was seeking medical treatment, and since he mentioned the mole to her earlier, she insisted he have his mole looked at as well.
After his shoulder pain was diagnosed as subluxation, or loss of the muscle that was keeping his shoulder in place, the doctor looked at Stolberg’s mole.
“He said it looked pretty bad,” Stolberg recalls, and the doctor said he needed to send a piece of it to get tested.
On July 20, Stolberg finally got the test results. The Colts were now in San Antonio, TX.
“I came in from day rehearsals and the tour director took me into a back room and told me the doctor called. The tests were positive for cancer,” Stolberg said.
Stolberg’s mother was notified before he was. When he called his mother, it was a very emotional experience, especially since Stolberg’s parents were states away.
The doctor, tour director and Stolberg’s parents agreed that he needed to leave the Colts tour, return home and seek treatment. Stolberg was devastated.
“I had spent…going on four years of my life with these people. I didn’t care what was going on with my body. I didn’t want to leave them,” Stolberg recalls.
Since the Colts regional competition was only two days away, Stolberg decided to perform and fly home to North Dakota, where his parents lived, immediately after.
The days leading up to regionals were especially difficult for Stolberg because of his condition. He dealt with this stress almost solitarily since so few knew about his test results.
“I didn’t tell anyone else in the corps except for three of my friends and my section coordinator, Carla,” Stolberg said.
He wanted to keep the news quiet since the competition was already causing so much stress to his teammates.
On the day of regionals, Stolberg was very emotional. Not knowing the severity of the cancer, he prepared for the worst.
“I kept thinking this could be my last show with drum corps,” Stolberg said, but that did not stop him from giving a great performance.
“I had an absolutely amazing show,” said Stolberg. “I cried afterwards. I thought I could be too sick to perform again.”
After the regionals, the corps got together to discuss their performance. After getting feedback, Mitch stood to tell his team he was leaving.
“’I’m going home.’ That’s all I said, and everyone’s mouth just dropped open because I’m not one to ever give up color guard. [It] is my life,” Stolberg said.
He then told his team about the cancer, and the next day, after many tears and hugs, Stolberg packed and left for home.
“When Mitch called to tell me he had cancer last summer I didn’t believe him at first. It just didn’t seem real. Cancer isn’t for people you know about, it’s for people in stories, or on tv. You never expect it to happen to your best friend,” Katherine Nicla, 21, said. Nicla has been a close friend of Stolberg for years.
Once home to Fargo, ND, Stolberg and his parents set up appointments with dermatology clinics, so he could get the cancer removed. During the procedure, the whole left side of Stolberg’s face was numbed, and the doctors cut out “everything suspicious-looking.” They cut out all cancerous cells and sent them to the Mayo Clinic for further testing.
Stolberg was home for two weeks waiting for the results, but his mind was not on his cancer.
“I was ready just to get back on tour,” Stolberg said.
Finally, in August, Stolberg received some results. The initial results indicated that the cancer was contained to his left cheek, but the results were still considered “undetermined” and needed further testing.
Despite awaiting further results, Stolberg left for Boston, MA to rejoin the Colts’ tour.
“It was a huge relief to be back with my Colts family,” Stolberg said.
Stolberg, though concerned he might still have cancer, pushed the thoughts from his mind and prepared for the national finals.
On the way to the gate to perform the second-to-last time for the season, Stolberg’s phone rang. It was the doctor. Stolberg was informed that he had early-stage melanoma. Fortunately, since it was caught early, the cancer was contained to his cheek, and Stolberg was told that it should not appear anymore.
Stolberg was overjoyed and immediately told his team.
“Then we went in and had a kick-ass quarter-finals performance,” Stolberg said.
Though Stolberg no longer has cancer, he is now very conscious of covering his skin while outside. He frequently reapplies sunscreen and checks his body for moles. Despite his brush with cancer due to prolonged sun exposure, Stolberg has no intention of leaving Colts.
“I just need to have a giant, multi-colored sombrero on during rehearsals now.”