September-October 2021 | Health

‘It still seems unbelievable’

At 36, Simon Maloy was a successful political writer with a wife and two young sons. Then he found out he had colon cancer, a disease striking more and more young people.

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Photo by Lisa Helfert

Three days. That’s all Simon Maloy got. Three days to hop on bikes with his two young sons without thinking it could be their last ride together. Three days to cook pizzas in the backyard oven at the Kensington home he and his wife, Leslie, loved. Three days to focus his razor-sharp mind not on his health, but on the writing that had earned him admiration and notoriety within the progressive political universe and respect beyond it.

Maloy was just 36 years old when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in October 2017. After surgery and a grueling six months of chemotherapy, his doctors were optimistic when his CT scan came back clean in May 2018. But three days after that procedure, his oncologist called to tell him that his blood work was back from the lab, and the enzymes that tend to correlate with cancer were elevated. It wasn’t a good sign.

“That was crushing to him,” says his father, Chris. “I can remember us sitting in the kitchen. It was the only time I saw him cry about it.”

After another year of appointments with doctors, chemotherapy treatments, and an experimental drug trial, all of which brought glimmers of hope followed by cold doses of reality, a surgeon discovered that the cancer had spread. Six weeks later, Maloy was dead at the age of 37.

“Sometimes it still seems unbelievable,” Leslie says. “Nineteen months…and gone. Gone.”

She’s sitting on the couch in her new home on a sunny day in June, two years after her husband’s death. The house is just a few blocks from the old one, where she and Simon brought their firstborn, Avery, now 7, from the hospital, then two years later introduced him to his brother, James, who is 5. It was there that Hildy, the beautiful tricolor Bernese mountain dog lying comfortably at Leslie’s feet, joined the family as a puppy while Simon was in the throes of chemo, a bright spot during the darkest days. A photograph of the couple and their children, taken just before Simon started losing his hair, sits on the mantel above the fireplace. One of Simon, his parents, and his two brothers is displayed on an end table, and a picture Leslie took of her husband alone in the dining room is propped up on a table in the foyer.

“You don’t want to make a shrine to someone. He would probably come and haunt me if I did that,” says Leslie, who moved in last December. “I want him to be present, I want him to be here, but I also need it to not feel like a museum. That was one of the reasons I ended up moving in the first place. This thing that had been a comfort—our house, where all our memories were—started to feel like the set of a life that isn’t anymore, for any of us.”

Leslie and Simon with sons James (left) and Avery in December 2018. Courtesy photo

How could an outwardly healthy, 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound man in his 30s who routinely exercised, didn’t drink in excess or smoke, ate right and was, in the words of his mother, “as strong as an ox,” get colon cancer? It’s a question researchers, oncologists and an increasing number of younger patients are asking themselves these days. Even as the overall number of colorectal cancer cases—colon cancer or rectal cancer—is decreasing, the rate among adults younger than 50 has more than doubled since the 1990s, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“If the current trends continue, by 2030, colon cancer cases are expected to increase by 90% in patients under 35, and rectal cancer cases are expected to increase by 124% in patients that age,” Dr. Y. Nancy You of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center said in an article for the center in October 2020. “In addition, about 60% of these young patients are diagnosed with stage III and IV colorectal cancer. That means their cancer is being found later, when it’s harder to treat.”

That was the case with Maloy, who was a bit of an introvert despite being widely known for his sharply worded writing and opinions.

“There really was nothing he wanted more in the world than to be home hanging out with family and friends, raising his boys, cooking amazing meals or baking bread, doing the Sunday New York Times crossword, playing with his dog, or puttering around in the raised-bed garden he built in our backyard,” Leslie, 43, says in an email. “There is still nothing we want more than to have him back with us again.” 

Leslie at home in Kensington with Hildy, the Bernese mountain dog the family got as a puppy while Simon was going through chemo. Photo by Lisa Helfert

From a young age, Maloy harbored a love for writing and an intolerance for injustice. He was a sensitive kid, always quick to snuggle up to the family’s Bernese mountain dogs. The middle of three boys, he wrote about his younger brother, Owen, in grade school, concluding that “he’s kind of an OK guy. I think we’ll keep him,” as his father recalls.

By high school, Maloy was writing fiction for pleasure and playing hockey in his hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut. When a game against a rival included several controversial calls and ended in a loss, his team skated off the ice, forgoing the traditional postgame handshakes. “Everyone except for one player—that was Simon,” says his mother, Susie. “He alone went down the line.”

Maloy majored in history at Williams College in Massachusetts, but he didn’t become overtly political until after his graduation in 2003, when he started listening to the now defunct left-leaning radio network Air America. One day he heard an interview with Media Matters for America founder David Brock that captivated him. He wrote to Brock and eventually landed an internship with the progressive organization before becoming a paid member of its staff.

“We were all broke, entry-level people in D.C., so we did poker games and stuff like that. Simon and I became friends because we both sucked at poker,” says Julie Millican, vice president of Media Matters, who met Maloy in 2005. “Everybody was always intimidated by him until you got to know him because he was so smart and one of the most talented people that has ever set foot in that organization. He could cut right to the core of something and lay it out very plainly and simply in a way that is compelling. In one sense his prose was kind of eloquent, but it was very accessible.”

On New Year’s Eve in 2004, Simon and Leslie were introduced at a mutual friend’s party. She thought he was cute, and also was attracted to his quick wit and intelligence. “In a crowded room, he was not going to be the guy who was holding court in the corner. That was not him,” she says. “He was the guy who was going to be observing everyone in the corner. In some ways, he was a lot more comfortable behind a computer screen where he could write.”

They dated for six years before marrying in 2011 in Oaxaca, Mexico, about a four-hour drive from the Mexican town where Leslie’s mother grew up. By this time, Leslie was working in media relations and Simon had become a well-known pundit in political circles. For six months, he live-blogged while listening to every second of every Rush Limbaugh broadcast. It was a job that “might be your idea of hell, or it might be your idea of paradise,” The Boston Globe wrote in a 2009 story about him.

For Maloy, holding those he considered right-wing rubes accountable in articles and on social media was pure pleasure. His Twitter account eventually had more than 52,000 followers. When he wasn’t throwing jabs and barbs toward people he saw as insincere or hypocritical, he would post about his cooking or his dog.

“I am old enough to remember when Chris Christie was the blue-state Republican governor that was gonna win it all. I am four years old,” he posted on Feb. 21, 2019. A day later: “I want the Mueller report mainly so I can see Rudy Giuliani on TV with all his facial features going in different directions at the same time.”

In 2013, Maloy left Media Matters for a short stint with the Democratic National Committee before eventually landing at Salon. There, he wrote an essay the day after Donald Trump’s election that received more than 11,000 views on Facebook.

“In my capacity as a media figure, I too often treated Trump as a joke, a bumbling incompetent, someone who obviously could not be treated seriously as a legitimate candidate for the presidency. Now I can only think that I was too hidebound by conventional wisdom, too comfortably out of touch to see what was in front of me. I succumbed to the sideshow element of this awful race more times than I can be comfortable with. I own this failure, too.”

Leslie and Simon visited Australia in the fall of 2013. They were expecting their first child. Courtesy photo

In the late summer of 2017, Maloy began experiencing nagging stomach pain. “You could hear his stomach churning,” Leslie says. “It sounded like water going down a drain. Sometimes I could hear it from across the room.”

A doctor initially thought it could be irritable bowel syndrome, but medication for that didn’t help. So Maloy went to a gastroenterologist, who ran tests that were inconclusive.

A week later, Leslie was getting ready to go out with friends when her husband emerged from their bedroom. “It stopped me in my tracks because all of a sudden he looked incredibly sick. He was just gray,” Leslie says. “I actually said, ‘I can’t leave you.’ I canceled my plans and said, ‘You’re going to go see the doctor tomorrow. This is ridiculous. You look horrible.’ ”

His weigh-in at that appointment showed that he had lost 9 pounds, and a CT scan was scheduled for the following Monday. It was mid-October, and Maloy had gone back to work for Media Matters, so he went to his office after the procedure. When he got there, the doctor called asking him to come back. “We went in and the office was empty,” Leslie says. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is not good.’ The doctor said that they had found a large tumor in his colon, and she told us to go home and pack a bag and go to the emergency room.”

On the way home, Simon called his parents. “I will never forget his voice,” his father says. “He simply said, ‘I have cancer.’ He wasn’t tearful, but he was clearly shaken.”

That Thursday, Maloy underwent surgery at D.C.’s Sibley Memorial Hospital that removed 12 inches of his colon, the tumor, and some lymph nodes. The pathology revealed that his cancer was the most advanced level of Stage 3. Worse, doctors found that he had signet ring cell carcinoma, an aggressive subset of colon cancer.  “We typically think about the progression of colon cancer from a polyp to cancer over a 10-year period, which is why we recommend getting a colonoscopy every 10 years,” says Dr. Valerie Lee, Maloy’s oncologist at Sibley. “But when people have these features, our best guess is it comes up much more quickly.”

No one knows exactly why rates of colorectal cancer, which is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S. excluding skin cancers, are rising among younger people. One theory points to genetics. Nearly a third of colorectal cancer patients under 35 have an inherited genetic mutation that caused their cancer, compared with 3% to 5% of all patients, according to MD Anderson. About 15% to 20% of patients under 35 have a family history of colorectal cancer or of other cancers that indicate they may be at higher risk, compared with about 12% to 15% of all colorectal cancer patients, the center says. Though Maloy’s maternal grandfather died from colon cancer when he was 58, Leslie says that wasn’t something Simon worried about.

Despite the slight increase of younger patients who have a genetic predisposition, most of the colon cancer cases in people under 50 that Lee has seen haven’t been related to genetics. “We think that there may be something in our environmental exposures, possibly in some of the foods that we’ve eaten,” she says. “There’s a lot of interest in looking at our gut flora as well.”

In 2018, the American Cancer Society lowered the recommended age for a first colonoscopy in average-risk adults from 50 to 45. But Lee says that shouldn’t dissuade anyone younger than that who has symptoms—which include persistent abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss and rectal bleeding—from consulting their physician immediately. Colon cancer is usually more treatable the earlier it’s caught, she says.

Despite the seriousness of Maloy’s circumstances, doctors were cautiously optimistic that the surgery was successful. But they still proceeded with an aggressive plan to fight the disease. Maloy, who came out of the hospital 21 pounds lighter than when he checked in, went back to Sibley for chemo once every two weeks, then did follow-up at home. He didn’t lose his hair, but the side effects were rough. He had a metallic taste in his mouth that ruined the flavor of some foods, particularly frustrating for a gourmand who once wrote a food blog. He was so sensitive to cold that he had to wear gloves to get something from the refrigerator.

Throughout this ordeal, he kept working, going into the office when he could. He would type on his laptop during the five-hour chemo sessions until he felt so awful that he had to quit. Then he was out of commission for several days. Still, he told almost none of his colleagues about his condition.

“He did not want to be pitied,” Leslie says. “He wanted his work to speak for itself. He didn’t want it to be like, ‘the guy with cancer wrote this.’ ”

After that three-day reprieve in May 2018, Maloy’s spirits sagged. He always heeded his doctors’ advice and never gave up hope that he’d be cured, but he also wasn’t the type to hold unrealistic expectations. One of his favorite articles in The Onion, his father says, is headlined “Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer.”

In October, another CT scan showed cancerous lymph nodes in his abdomen. He was Stage 4. Terminal. He started another round of chemo, which was even more brutal than the first. His hair started falling out. He kept working, but primarily from home. Steroids affected his ability to sleep, and bumps started protruding from under the skin on his neck.

Still, in April 2019 he cooked Easter dinner for the family. He was in good spirits, and tweeted a picture of a half-eaten cake that had fallen victim to Hildy. Later that week, doctors found an enlarged lymph node pressing on his bile duct. When a surgeon went to place a stent to bypass the blockage, he realized that the cancer had spread throughout Maloy’s abdominal cavity and stomach.

This time, Maloy declined to go through another round of chemo. “He said, ‘I just want to go home, be in my house and be with my boys,’ ” Leslie recalls. “So we did.”

Even before her husband got sick, Leslie made a point of talking to her kids about death. She never wanted it to be a mystery to them. She’d stop to point out a bug on the sidewalk that had died. Everything, she told them, has a beginning and an end. “In terms of Simon’s illness, I told them that he had a sickness called cancer,” she says. “I always used to say that the doctors were trying their best to help him, but I tried to never make it seem like he’s going to be all better.”

Maloy spent his final weeks at home in hospice care. One night before bed, then 5-year-old Avery asked Leslie if his daddy was going to die. “I said, ‘Yes, he’s coming to the end of his life very soon,’ ” Leslie says. “He said, ‘Daddy can’t die; he’s part of my family. What am I going to do without a dad?’ He was so upset, it was so heartbreaking. I honestly think that was worse than the moment that I had to tell them that he had died. It was the breaking of the innocence.”

Simon Maloy passed away in the early morning hours of June 10, 2019. Leslie and his parents were by his side. “I think it’s the final act of love that you can give, to walk with someone in those moments that ultimately they are doing by themselves,” she says. “He was surrounded by love.”

On the afternoon of her husband’s death, Leslie began getting texts from friends telling her that Simon was trending on Twitter. Media Matters, which started a GoFundMe that raised more than $100,000 for the family, had put out a statement about him, and his readers, followers and fans had responded en masse.

“This won’t make sense to everyone, but @SimonMaloy was my favorite person I didn’t know. I already miss him,” one person wrote.

“I’m in tears. I feel like I’ve lost a friend,” posted another.

“You see someone in the light of your own relationship: He was my husband—he was the father of my children,” Leslie says. “Here were strangers mourning Simon and talking about how much he meant to them, how much they loved to read what he had to say, how they were going to miss him. It was lovely and touching. It felt like a hug from the universe.”

In the beginning, she says, grief was there from the time she woke up until she closed her eyes. It has relented, but not left.

“I see how big the kids are now, and that’s where I realize that time is passing,” Leslie says in June. “That feeling of time separating you from someone is really painful. It feels like a forced separation. There’s nothing you can do about it, and every day that goes by and every milestone that they miss is just pushing them in time away from you. But I think eventually small happinesses start to wiggle their way in.”

Minutes later, Susie Maloy pulls into the driveway with James. She and Simon’s father fulfilled their son’s dying wish—“the only thing he ever asked us to do for him,” Chris says—and moved from Connecticut to D.C. to help raise the boys. As Leslie walks outside into a chorus of cicadas, Hildy trots by her side. In the driveway, she hugs James, who is a smiling, sweaty mess after a half day of outdoor pre-K. Together, they all walk back into the house, where old memories endure and new ones are waiting to be made.

Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.