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Running for a Cause: Colon Cancer Patient Running the Boston Marathon to Raise Awareness

Phil Decker, 46, of Robins.
Phil Decker, 46, of Robins.

If you were to think about what a colon cancer patient looks like, you probably would not picture someone like Phil Decker, 46, of Robins. He’s under 50-years-old, in good physical shape, exercises consistently and he’s even run a couple marathons – in fact he’s currently training to run the Boston Marathon later this month.

Despite all this, in January of 2022, Decker was diagnosed with colon cancer. Not being “one of those guys who’s going to sit on the couch and let [cancer] win,” Decker has decided to make it his mission to raise awareness about colon cancer and how it can happen to anyone.

A Surprise Diagnosis

At a routine appointment with his primary care provider, Dr. Alecia Allen with UnityPoint Clinic, the topic of screening colonoscopies came up. Under new guidelines released in May 2021 by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which lowered the recommended age patients should start screening for colon cancer from 50 to 45, Decker qualified for a screening colonoscopy.

He wasn’t experiencing any symptoms, but he took Dr. Allen’s advice and scheduled the procedure. Decker had his screening colonoscopy at UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Gastroenterology with Dr. Pavan Chepyala. On January 5, Decker received the shocking news: Stage IV colon cancer that had spread to his liver.

“[Dr. Allen] had never told me to get a test in my life. I trusted her and listened to her. She probably saved my life,” said Decker. “She’s my guardian angel.”

Treatment at the Nassif Community Cancer Center

Upon his diagnosis, Decker was referred to the Nassif Community Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids for treatment. The Nassif Community Cancer Center is a partnership of UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital and Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa, in collaboration with other community-based specialty providers.

Connie Dietiker, RN, served as Decker’s care coordinator at the Community Cancer Center. A care coordinator is a patient’s constant point of contact throughout the cancer journey. They will assess needs, set up referrals within the cancer care team and serve as resource for the patient to answer questions and listen.

“Connie is awesome. She’s an advocate, a guardian angel, and I can’t say enough good things about her,” said Decker. “One time I needed an MRI, and it was scheduled for a week out. Connie picked up the phone and got it moved up. I was there for my MRI four hours later. I would walk over hot coals for Connie.”

Decker has also received support along his journey from Matt Schmitz, cancer exercise specialist, and Mary Beth Peiffer, oncology dietitian, also from the Nassif Community Cancer Center.

“They’ve both been great. As soon as this is all done, the first person I’ll call is Matt. I’ve lifted my whole life, but this will be like coming back from an injury. You need somebody to guide you,” said Decker. “Mary Beth comes to see me in chemo all the time and has given me great ideas. When I transition to the diet I want to be on the rest of my life, she will be a great resource.”

An Opportunity to Raise Awareness

Even with a diagnosis like the one Decker received, he’s not taking time to feel sorry for himself or ask, ‘why me?’ He believes he’s been given an opportunity to raise awareness about colon cancer and how it can happen to anyone.

“I’m a very big believer that I can only control what I can control. I have cancer now and I’ve got to fight,” said Decker. “If I sit around and think ‘why did this happen to me?’ I don’t think that’s very productive.”

Decker certainly has been productive over the past few months. While undergoing the rigors of cancer treatment, he started a website called tell5friends.org. The site encourages everyone to tell their five closest friends to get a screening colonoscopy, shares his story, provides info and resources about colon cancer awareness and shares about his mission and how you can help.

Podcast Episode: Phil’s Colon Cancer Story

Phil Decker, who is battling stage IV colon cancer with the help of his team at the Nassif Community Cancer Center, joins Dr. Arnold to talk about his mission to raise awareness about colon cancer and how it can happen to anyone.

Running to Give Back

Phil’s ultimate goal is to run the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 18. Along his journey to the marathon, he’s raising money for two organizations who support cancer patients and their families.

The first is the I Know Jack Foundation, a great community partner of the Nassif Community Cancer Center. I Know Jack provides “Jack Packs” to each cancer patient who walks through the doors of the Nassif Community Cancer Center. Each Jack Pack contains items helpful to patients. Upon receiving his Jack Pack, Decker learned more about Jack and was impressed by his story.

“That kid has been through hell and he still fights, and his family is paying it forward,” said Decker. “So I’m using the Boston Marathon as a fundraiser for them.”

Half of the money raised will also go to benefit Children’s Cancer Connection, which is an organization that connects families affected by childhood cancer by providing opportunities that encourage relationships and strengthen community.

To date, Decker has raised over $11,000 for these two organizations. Individuals interested in supporting Decker’s journey and these organizations may donate on his website.

Individuals who are 45 or older are encouraged to talk with their primary healthcare provider about colon cancer screening. For more information about services available to colon cancer patients at the Nassif Community Cancer Center, call (319) 558-4876.

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