Feeling Cheeky: Meet David Russo, founder of Cheeky Charity

Sarah Mahoney

David Russo, Founder and Executive Director of Cheeky Charity

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and at Cheeky Charity it’s one of the busiest months of the year. We chatted with David Russo, founder of Cheeky Charity—a 2022 Prevent Cancer Foundation community grant recipient. An eccentric nonprofit, Cheeky Charity is not afraid to show off their buns to get people talking about colorectal cancer. In this interview, David shares his inspiration for starting Cheeky Charity, his goals to spread colorectal cancer awareness in the LGBTQ+ community and the moments that have stood out to him most since he started Cheeky Charity three years ago.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to start Cheeky Charity?

Before this was even an idea I had, I was affected by this disease. I was 32 years old and I had blood in my stool. As a sexually active gay man, I wrote it off and abstained. [Editor’s Note: Light bleeding from anal sex can occur and typically isn’t cause for concern. It should stop within a couple of days.] But after about a month, I was still finding blood in my stool.

I went to the doctor and they told me I was too young to have anything serious, and it was likely hemorrhoids. But it didn’t feel right, so I ended up pushing for a colonoscopy, and it found a few pre-cancerous polyps that were right on the cusp of transitioning to cancer.
I called home to tell my parents. And they said, “That makes sense. Your dad’s been getting polyps removed since he was 40. Your grandfather died of colorectal cancer. Your two (distant) cousins passed away from colorectal cancer.”

I didn’t know. Nobody talked about it. I knew my grandfather died of cancer before I was born, but I didn’t know what kind it was.
I was grateful to be more aware of my family history and didn’t think much of it beyond that. Fast forward six years and COVID hit, and I started traveling the country in a sprinter van just to try to figure out what to do with my life. On a whim, I researched colorectal cancer, and I learned it’s the second leading cause of cancer death—and it’s getting to be more common in younger adults, and NOT just those with family history.

If I don’t know about it, other people must not know about it, either.
I started an Instagram page to post fun photos and PSAs about colorectal cancer alongside them. I wanted to attract people who would not otherwise see information about colorectal cancer—they’d come to us because they’d enjoy looking at the photography and then they would hear the message through it.

Our focus is on the LGBTQ community and within that, the younger adult population. But we certainly want everybody to see our messaging. During Pride Month this June, we’re trying to get colorectal cancer awareness into as many Pride events around the country as possible.

Unveiling the Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month street banner that is being displayed throughout Palm Springs during March, with the Mayor of Palm Springs, Jeffrey Bernstein.

Why is raising awareness of colorectal cancer important?

For anybody who’s under 45, the only reason they might get screened is if they experience any symptoms or if they learn they have a family history of the disease. And they’re likely not going to figure that out unless somebody tells them. Especially with the increasing incidence of colorectal cancer in younger adults, it’s more important than ever to make sure people are aware.

What we’re doing is getting the words “colorectal cancer” to an audience. The more you talk about it, the less stigma there is. So, we’re simplifying it and spreading the message—for people in their 20s and 30s, to be aware of signs and symptoms, and for people 45 and up to get screened.

What resources do you provide throughout the year to inform and educate your audience?

Every first and third Tuesday of the month, we hold support groups for LGBTQ+ colorectal cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. We hope it helps people in the community that have gone through, and are going through, colorectal cancer to know that there are people they can talk to in a welcoming environment. (Find our online or in-person [Palm Springs, Ca.] groups.)

And we also bring people to other resources that exist. We’re very open to providing linkages for people so they can get care and financial services.

Why is it important to raise awareness of colorectal cancer in the LGBTQ+ community?

There are a lot of preconceived stigmas that people in the LGBTQ+ community have about what they’ll experience when they go into a health care setting.

In the American Cancer Society’s 2024 Facts and Figures report, there is a special LGBTQ+ section, which says one in six people in the LGBTQ+ community are not going in for preventive screenings because of poor past experiences and fear—like the fear of discrimination or not being welcome. That number is one in five within the trans community.

As a society, we have to do better so that LGBTQ+ people can access the care they need. And as an LGBTQ+ person, I want to empower my community to advocate for their health.

Awareness booth at Cathedral City Pride, March 11th.

What has funding from the Prevent Cancer Foundation allowed Cheeky Charity to do?

Funding from the Prevent Cancer Foundation has been invaluable. It’s enabled us to create a foundation, to create a starting point. The Prevent Cancer Foundation grant allows us to work on the ground for in-person initiatives where we can physically interact with folks. And it would have taken us a very long time to be able to do that otherwise.

Last year’s $25,000 grant from the Prevent Cancer Foundation set us up, and now we were recently awarded $250,000 from the New York State Department of Health to expand our work. We’re in the phase where we have so much momentum, opportunity and growth, and it’s thanks to the Prevent Cancer Foundation for trusting us as a small organization.

How is your work at Cheeky Charity having an impact?

There were probably 20 or 30 moments where people had come up to me and said they’re overdue for their screenings, and their partner says, “I’m going to push you on this, too.” So we know we are helping somebody who is overdue for screening get into the doctor.
Then we’ve had a few people say they got screened and they didn’t detect anything. In those moments, I’m so grateful they went in and they can have the peace of mind knowing that things are clear and they don’t have to go in for another ten years for a colonoscopy.

And I can think of four instances in the last four months when people have come up to me and said, “I saw your campaign. I went in and I got screened and they found polyps.” One person said they found precancerous, like right-on-the-cusp polyps. It’s the folks that told me they caught the polyps early and prevented cancer that stand out the most, and I start crying and then they start crying and it’s just a big teary mess in all the best ways.


For additional information about colorectal cancer, head to preventcancer.org/colorectal, and visit the Prevent Cancer Foundation page on Cancer and the LGBTQ+ community.