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Ep. 193 – Running for a Cause: Phil’s Colon Cancer Story (Phil Decker)

In this episode, 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. 

 

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Host: 
Dr. Dustin Arnold
Chief Medical Officer
UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital

Guest:
Phil Decker
Colon Cancer Patient and Awareness Advocate

Dr. Arnold:
This is LiveWell Talk On…Running For A Cause, Phil’s colon cancer story. I’m Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s. Joining me today is Phil Decker. Phil’s currently fighting stage four colon cancer and receiving active treatment through the Nassif Community Cancer Center. Phil just wasn’t going to take it like that and he wants to raise awareness for colon cancer and colon cancer screenings. And I mean, I’m all for raising awareness, but running 26 miles is incredible. And so you’re training for the Boston marathon, which will be on April 18th. So Phil, thanks for joining me.

Phil Decker:
Absolutely.

Dr. Arnold:
You know, I participate in marathons all the time. They’re called Netflix for like eight straight hours. That’s, you know, so I knock out two marathons every weekend. But the type of marathon you’re doing is a little bit different. Tell me, what’s your background with marathons?

Phil Decker:
So I’ve been an athlete my whole life, but I was a tennis player growing up. About when I was 40, it’s kind of a podcast cliche, but I decided to do something that I really didn’t like. I kind of wanted just step out of my comfort zone. I needed to get a little bit back into shape, so I decided to start running. I started out with just a simple 5k here in town, and that was about five years ago. And it just kind of progressed. I ran my first half marathon, the CRANDIC. And then I did a half Ironman back home. And then I kind of just decided, the next progression in the ladder was to do a marathon. And I did the Indianapolis marathon in 2019 and I’m a little competitive, so I decided that I wanted to have a goal. And I decided that I wanted to qualify for the Boston marathon. A lot of my running buddies said, well, I think you’re kind of crazy this your first time doing it. I had a great race. I was lucky, I was well trained, and I was lucky enough to qualify. I did my first Boston marathon just recently. It’s normally in April and it got pushed back to October. So I did it this year in October. And then I was training for the next Boston, which is April 18th, when I’m getting ready to run. I didn’t have a great Boston my first time out, it’s a downhill course, which you think that would make it a lot easier. But it’s a lot more stressful on your quads.

Dr. Arnold:
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

Phil Decker:
And so when I got to about mile 16, it starts going up and down.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
And my quads were shredded and my time was way less than I qualified for. So I hired a coach and I kind of said, hey, I’m going to get to work. Probably a week after I came back from Boston, I hired a coach. Her and I had a great—we did a speed session for eight weeks. Everything was going great. Literally a week before I got my colonoscopy at the end of January, I ran my fastest 5k on a treadmill. I was training really well and then went in for a routine colonoscopy on January 5th, life changed.

Dr. Arnold:
So you’re seeing Dr. Alecia Allen, who is a five-star doctor.

Phil Decker:
Absolutely. Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
I mean, she’s amazing. She’s done a podcast previously with me, but so you’re seeing her and she just says, look, you need a screening colonoscopy. You were having no symptoms.

Phil Decker:
Yep.

Dr. Arnold:
That’s amazing.

Phil Decker:
I’m lucky to have Alecia, not only as a doctor, but as a friend.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
And I one hundred percent agree with you. She’s a great doctor, she’s smart as a whip. And you know, she’s never, she’s never said to me, hey, you need to get this test or that test. You know, usually if she sees something, you know, she’ll say anything, but we never had any issues before. You know, I actually went in for my physical in October and she said, all right, hey, you’re 46 now Phil, you need to get your colonoscopy. And I kind of looked at her like, I feel great, what do you mean here? She’s like, well, you know, they moved it to 45. You need to go in and get it. And she knows me well enough that she said, we’ll do it after Boston, and she said, I’ll get it scheduled. So she actually scheduled it. And they called me up and they said, hey, you’d be January 5th. So there was really no backing out, which is probably a good thing.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
And you know, to this day, she probably deflects it, but I mean, she literally saved my life.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
Because, you know, if I had waited six months or if I even waited until I was 50, we’re looking at a much different outcome.

Dr. Arnold:
That is just such a good story. Speaking of Boston, she’s a Boston College grad.

Phil Decker:
Yep. I know that. Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
So she’s familiar with Boston.

Phil Decker:
When I go to Boston, I send her pictures.

Dr. Arnold:
Do you?

Phil Decker:
Yeah. For sure.

Dr. Arnold:
Well, let’s talk about that screening colonoscopy. You know, a lot of people defer this because of the prep and time. Just kind of tell us about the prep for you and reassure people that, you know, it’s not that big a deal really.

Phil Decker:
Yeah. You know, so you do a prep the night before and obviously people, you know, kind of shy away from that and get a little scared. I had no issues, you know, where I felt bad the next day or anything like that. You know, I just did the prep and I had my colonoscopy at eight the next morning. So I was up until about midnight, one o’clock in the morning. And I really, I tell all my friends all the time, I say, you can either get a colonoscopy, which I would do every day in my life, or you could do chemo like I’m doing today. And that’s a, you don’t want to be there if you don’t have to.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
You can get colonoscopy and if you have some polyps and you have some things that may be pre-cancerous, they can cut them out while they’re in there. And the next day after I got my colonoscopy, I literally ran the next day. I kind of had a feeling that, you know, we had some discussions the day before about cancer.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
I had a feeling that the biopsy was going to come back it probably going to be positive. But in terms of any feeling bad afterwards, there was no issues.

Dr. Arnold:
So, Dr. Chepyala was able to tell you that day that this looks suspicious.

Phil Decker:
Absolutely. The first question that he asked my wife was, has he had any symptoms. You know, is there anything going on here, which I hadn’t. And he was pretty surprised about that. You know, I can’t say enough about how UnityPoint has treated my case. They jumped on it like it was a live grenade. And I literally was having blood test that morning. I met with a care counselor that day. I had my results back the next day. I was in a CT scan within two days, I think. And then after that I had some other, I had to get an MRI. But I mean, it was, it moved very quickly.

Dr. Arnold:
Certainly, that’s our goal.

Phil Decker:
Yep.

Dr. Arnold:
You know, particularly with that cancer diagnosis. We’re seeing people with advanced cancer coming in now and heart disease, et cetera, all because of that shutdown during the pandemic. And so that’s, in a way, it just reinforces what screening and health maintenance is of value. Because if you skip it, you really can see an influence in the severity of illness that we’re seeing in the hospital. But now, you know like Dr. Abramson, who’s a retired gastroenterologist, you know, people would say, well, the prep sucks. And he says, so does chemotherapy. So you make your choice. So tell me about, you’re actively at the Nassif Community Cancer Center. You’re getting in chemotherapy right now.

Phil Decker:
Yes.

Dr. Arnold:
Tell me a little bit about that.

Phil Decker:
So I started chemo basically the first week of February. I’m on a pretty, I would say it’s a pretty aggressive plan. So I have chemo all day on Mondays. And then I spend, I have a take home IV bag that gives me chemo for the next 48 hours. And then I get 11 days off. And I’ve done four cycles now. I did my rescans and then I’ll do a couple more cycles of chemo before I have surgery. And in terms of chemo, like you said, you’d much rather get a colonoscopy than have chemo.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
My wife says, and I think she’s absolutely right, that there’s no other choice, you know?

Dr. Arnold:
Right. Yeah.

Phil Decker:
Chemo—and I had great scans—it’s not the easiest regimen in the world, but quite frankly, it’s saving my life. So there is no other choice. You can’t take an aspirin for cancer.

Dr. Arnold:
Right.

Phil Decker:
So, you know, you have to do a little bit more than what’s required for most things. But the staff’s been great. I have a great bunch of nurses. My doctor’s been great. When I walk in there, I feel like that they really care. They know what you’re going through, and they try to make that environment as comfortable as possible.

Dr. Arnold:
If we’ve done one, we’ve done probably a half dozen—probably more than that—podcasts on the Hellen G. Nassif Cancer Center. We have a very great staff over at that center. And it’s just so obvious the passion that they have for what they do. I mean, they get up in the morning and they’re excited to go to work. You can just tell it, I mean, so they’re always nice to have on the podcast. And you know, you’ve been working with their team over there specifically, Connie Dietiker, Matt Schmitz, who we’ve had on a podcast. As well as Mary Beth Peiffer who is a dietitian. Tell me about your interactions with them. And you said, they treat you like family and go from there.

Phil Decker:
So I’ll start with Connie. Connie was the first person I met as a care counselor. And Connie’s kind of like my guardian angel. If I need something, if I need, you know, one time I called and they wanted to do an MRI in a week. And I was calling her to be like, hey, you know, that seems like it’s going to take a while. She had already called me and said, hey, don’t worry about it, Phil. I’m going call them right now and four hours later, I was in for an MRI. So she’s, I almost feel like she’s just my advocate. If I need something, she’ll do it. If I call her at seven o’clock at night, you know, she’ll work with me on something. I just saw her at, we went to the I Know Jack Foundation gala this weekend, and I saw her and it was the first person I gave a huge hug too. And then I saw her again today. She was in my meeting with Dr. Jenna Gary. She’s just like my guardian angel. She’s there for me. Every time I’ve called her, you know, sometimes I have to call her after hours, she picks up the phone. I mean, she is so committed to what she does. And like you said, there’s a big care aspect there. And she’s connected me to Matt and the dietitians. The dietitians will always come when I’m in chemo. They come down and they see me and they talk to me about different things. I’ve had some gastrointestinal issues and we’ve done some diet things to work on that. They’ve even helped me with different ideas for how I do my fueling for the race coming up.

Dr. Arnold:
For the race coming up?

Phil Decker:
Yep. I sat down, I’ve worked out for a long time, but this is a different ballgame. So I sat down, you know, it’s a free service, which is just, I have all these great resources. I’m a kind of person that if I have great resources, I like to bounce ideas off of them. You know, I learn stuff from people. And so, I sat him down with Matt, probably two weeks into my chemotherapy and my journey, and I said, you know, I basically wanted to pick his brain on how this was going work and what I was going to be able to do and what I wasn’t going to be able to do. He gave me some great exercises for neuropathy that I use to this day. I was really worried about my feet because that’s what I used to run. So that was a concern of mine. I ended up having a lot of neuropathy in my hands and my mouth. But my feet just, I think with the exercises I did and then just keep it moving, I haven’t had any issues.

Dr. Arnold:
Well that’s awesome, because that’s one condition that’s hard to treat, peripheral neuropathy. Whether it’s from chemotherapy or diabetes or some sort of other illness, that’s always really hard to treat.

Phil Decker:
Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
Painful peripheral neuropathy. Yeah. They’re not easy cases to treat.

Phil Decker:
I got my first ice cream last night in about, I don’t know how long it’s been now, three months? I was super excited to have some ice cream. But Matt in general, the thing I really looking forward to with Matt, I used to probably lift three or four days out of the week.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah.

Phil Decker:
He’s going to be a great resource for me. I know the exercises and the things to do, but I haven’t gone through cancer. And to rebuild my body, I’m going to lean heavily on him. Because I’ll almost be starting over at that point, in the terms of lifting weights and things like that.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah, exercise physiology has changed so much. I’m a little bit older than you, but I can remember being in seventh/eighth grade, I wrestled and also played football and baseball. Right?

Phil Decker:
Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
I can remember the baseball coach saying to us in the weight room, you’re going to screw up your throw, you’re going to screw up your swing.

Phil Decker:
Sure.

Dr. Arnold:
You know, you shouldn’t be lifting weights. And you know, now that’s just totally changed. And so that’s interesting. And Matt’s very knowledgeable and does a good job. You know, I want to point out something there for the listeners that, you know, you said you had the MRI, it was going to be four days and they got you in sooner.

Phil Decker:
Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
You know, I think sometimes when people hear those stories, they think, well, they weren’t telling the truth when they said they couldn’t do it for four days. And I want people to understand, and I know you understand this, is that MRI schedule is full that day. But Connie talked to the tech over there in the MRI suite and said, here’s the deal. And that person said, okay, we’re going to skip lunch. We’re going to stay a little late, you know, they made a sacrifice because that’s what—We want to give the healthcare to you, or to you our patients, that we would our loved ones. And if it was your loved one, you’d skip lunch or stay a little late to get it done. And so that happens every day in every department in the hospital. And that’s not an unusual story, I’m not surprised at all.

Phil Decker:
Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
You know, so Mary Beth, she has been the dietitian over there.

Phil Decker:
Yes.

Dr. Arnold:
We’ve had her on a previous podcast about this. And I’ve admitted to multiple people either during a podcast or during conversations, physicians don’t get a lot of nutrition training. The nutrition, and disclaimer, I don’t know if that’s changed in medical school, but it really was more biochemistry of fats and carbohydrates and et cetera. It really wasn’t fundamental nutrition. You know, they threw the food pyramid at you, which we now know is not great. So tell me how Mary Beth has coached you through this.

Phil Decker:
So I’ve had a lot of questions about my diet previously before this, right? So a lot of my questions have revolved around how can I make my treatment easier? You know, what can I do to lessen the side effects and things like that. And she’s given me a lot of great advice for that. And then, what’s my diet going to look like today going forward? Before this, I would say I ate a typical Midwestern diet.

Dr. Arnold:
Right.

Phil Decker:
Grew up in the Midwest. I just, you know, every six months I buy a quarter cow with my neighbors.

Dr. Arnold:
Yep.

Phil Decker:
You know, I have a lot of steaks in my freezer and a lot of hamburger. I’m in sales, so I’m on the road a lot. You know, I eat at a lot of deli places. You know, I was eating a lot of processed meats. You can’t not include bacon in the Midwest diet. So one of the first things I asked and kind of did some research on is, you know, if there’s anything I could do different. You know, hopefully once I get through this, how can I prevent it from maybe coming back? And I know there’s no guarantee of that, but I’ve talked to several oncologists and a lot of them say, hey, I need a lot more vegetables and fruit.

Dr. Arnold:
That roughage and fiber.

Phil Decker:
Yep. And we’ve talked about, I’ve talked specifically with her about fiber. One of the things I wasn’t aware of is you can’t increase your fiber overnight. You kind of have to do it as a process.

Dr. Arnold:
Oh, I didn’t know that.

Phil Decker:
Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
If I knew it, I forgot it.

Phil Decker:
I didn’t know either. You know, you can’t go from zero to a hundred. Because if you do that, then your gut doesn’t have enough ability to process it and you almost create other issues. So she’s given me some great advice, you know, we started at, here’s your grams that you’re eating regularly, and then we’re going to kind of go up from there and get to where we want to be in terms of the fiber side of it. And then, you know, just working with her on different things. You know, I’m going to go to more of a fish and chicken based diet for my proteins. Just, you have some recipes for me that I can use. And, you know, how do I get away from the red meats and the process meat.

Dr. Arnold:
Right.

Phil Decker:
And she validated, kind of my concerns, you know, that processed meats with nitrates and bacon are probably not real good for somebody who’s had colon cancer. If I’m getting it at 46, something’s going on in my body that maybe saying it’s not a good fit. So I’m going to eliminate those from my diet and you know, try to save my own life.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah. You know, I vividly remember I have a, it would be a second cousin, so would be my dad’s first cousin. You know, he worked at, I won’t say the name of the company, but he worked at a meat processing plant. Right? They make lunch meat, and he would never eat lunch meat. And I was like, well, okay, if the guy that’s making it is not eating it, should we be eating it? You know? And because they saw how it’s made. And certainly that high processed food is not good for you. Well, you know, medicine’s a team sport. The Helen G. Nassif Center certainly behaves that way. They’re an excellent team. And as I’ve said before, we’ve had them on the show multiple times, and I always learn something, always feel good about them coming over. They’re just passionate about what they’re doing. I love that.

Phil Decker:
Good people.

Dr. Arnold:
But you’re passionate, that’s pretty obvious.

Phil Decker:
Sure.

Dr. Arnold:
One, you’re dedicated to train for a marathon. But two, you’ve also started a website.

Phil Decker:
Yep.

Dr. Arnold:
Tell me more about that.

Phil Decker:
So one of the things that I decided kind of early on was, and I’ll kind of give you the backstory behind that.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah, please.

Phil Decker:
The first day that I was in chemotherapy, I received an I know Jack backpack. And it kind of tells the story about Jack. And I was pretty, I guess I was pretty affected or pretty floored by the fact that, here’s a kid who’s been battling brain cancer since he was five years old. Any kid that has to go through cancer, your heart just breaks, just pours out for them. And just to see how they were handling it and how they were trying to pay it forward and make the cancer experience easier on other people, my thought was, and I’ve always been a very positive person, that wanted to take this as an opportunity as ask, how can I help other people? Right? So we’re doing two things. The question I get the most is when people say to me, what can I do? And, you know, we’ve had people bringing us meals and things like that, and that’s great. But the thing that I always tell people is, I say, hey, what you can do is you can—most of my friends are over 45—you can get your colonoscopy and you can tell five friends. So we started a website, it’s called TellFiveFriends.org. And we’re going to continue to develop that. And the whole idea of that is not only save your own life, but do me a favor and go tell your five best friends and talk to them.

Dr. Arnold:
I like that.

Phil Decker:
You know, take my story, and we use my story as a good example. You know, if you saw me walking down the street, I’d be the last person you would think— Or if you knew me and you knew and knew what I do for running and things like that, the last thing you would ever have expected is me to be sitting here talking about stage four colon cancer. It would floor most of my friends. So we try to use that, kind of, extreme example as a way to prompt people to say, hey, you know, this is something that can happen to any of us. And I’ve had a lot of friends get colonoscopies as a result of that, probably 60 of them. I’ve had a couple of really close friends of mine that had precancerous polyps. Thank God they went in, you know, when they’re 45 or 46, as opposed to waiting. Because now it’s a tiny problem, versus a much bigger problem.

Dr. Arnold:
Right. Yeah, I mean with colon cancer, three to five years is a long time with colon cancer.

Phil Decker:
Right. Absolutely.

Dr. Arnold:
And that can spread in that time. That kind of reminds me that six degrees of separation with Kevin Bacon. For you, it’s the five degrees of Phil Decker in colonoscopies.

Phil Decker:
That’s a great way to look at it.

Dr. Arnold:
I like that. So you’re raising money through this, correct?

Phil Decker:
Yes.

Dr. Arnold:
How much have you raised?

Phil Decker:
So we partnered with the I know Jack Foundation and Children’s Cancer Connection, which is a camp in Iowa that’s kids with cancer can go to. We’ve had a great response from that. I thought when we first started, I thought maybe we raise a thousand bucks and that’ll be great. Right, you know, that’d be awesome. So we used me running the Boston marathon as a hook. And a lot of people run the Boston marathon for charity, that wasn’t my case. But I wanted to, you know, I wanted to use that event as kind of a way that people could kind of get behind me and then also get behind the two great charities that we were working with. We raised $11,000 in probably less than six weeks, which I’ve just been flabbergasted by. Just the appreciation of my friends to go out and help me out, and get behind me. I mean, that’s been a huge win for me. And it’s introduced me to a lot of great people. Everyone says, a lot of times you get “I’m sorry.” And I would’ve said the same thing to myself probably in January, but to be quite honest with you, I think this for me has been a blessing in disguise. It’s activated, it’s given me a purpose to help people and something that I can be passionate about. If I could save your life or somebody else’s life or a friend’s life, I mean, I think that’s a gift that I’ve been given that hopefully I can pay it forward.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah. You are a positive person, I can officially say that and sign off on that.

Phil Decker:
Thanks.

Dr. Arnold:
That’s impressive. Now, you got some good news last week. Can we talk about that?

Phil Decker:
Yeah, absolutely. I got rescanned last week, the scans went really good. I had seven spots on my liver and three of them were almost undetectable. And then my colon, I had a four to five centimeter mass when I started, and that’s been considerably reduced. So that was great news for me.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah, that’s outstanding.

Phil Decker:
Yeah, absolutely. And I will have, I’ll do a couple more rounds of chemo and then I’ll have surgery and hopefully we can get what’s left in there.

Dr. Arnold:
That is exciting. Yeah, the advanced liver and intestinal colon surgery that’s performed at Mayo is impressive. And they have some really impressive surgeons up there. Couple more personal friends and they’re just, they’re impressive people just to be with.

Phil Decker:
And they work hand in hand with my people here, which is nice, because I don’t have to go up there and do chemo or things like that. I just go up there, really when I need to talk to the surgeons.

Dr. Arnold:
I mean, there was a time that if you sent a patient to Mayo, you kind of lost the patient. Right? And I would say in the last 10 years, Mayo has said, let’s keep as much as we can local and that’s been a good relationship. We were in the Mayo Clinic network there for four or five years, and it was just a tremendously outstanding relationship.

Phil Decker:
I’m glad. Yeah, that’s one hundred percent how I feel. They’ve, you know, they work with my team. I was in to see my oncologist, Dr. Jenna Gary today, and they have all their notes. They talk back and forth. It’s the same network, which is great.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah, I called up there once, I had a patient in clinic and I thought he needed surgery. So I called up there and I talked to the surgeon. I said, well, here’s what’s going on. I think he needs surgery. He goes, yeah, I agree with you. I said, okay, well we’ll make a referral. He goes, well, what’s the patient doing tomorrow? And I was like I don’t know, let me ask him. And the guy had surgery the next day. Went up, saw the doctor in the morning, and had surgery afterwards. And you know, that never happens.

Phil Decker:
No. Can you call that doctor for me? I don’t want to wait until July.

Dr. Arnold:
Are you a patient person, can you wait? Or, do you always have to be active?

Phil Decker:
I’m pretty active. Yeah, for sure.

Dr. Arnold:
Yeah, that’s my impression.

Phil Decker:
I’m in sales, so patience is probably—I mean, I have some patience, but it’s not a natural virtue of mine.

Dr. Arnold:
You have to work at it?

Phil Decker:
Yep. Yep.

Dr. Arnold:
Okay. Phil, thank you for joining me today. We wish you the best of luck in the marathon, as well as your upcoming surgery. And I’d like to have you back on the podcast to do kind of a follow up at some point.

Phil Decker:
Sure.

Dr. Arnold:
It’s always a good story to share and I think it really will, you know, if we get one listener to get a colonoscopy, that’s a success, right?

Phil Decker:
Absolutely. We could save one life. You know, they say one in 23 people now are getting colon cancer. So if we could save—

Dr. Arnold:
And younger and younger too.

Phil Decker:
Yeah.

Dr. Arnold:
Again, this was Phil Decker, who’s running the Boston marathon on Monday, April 18th to raise awareness about colon cancer and raise money for the I know Jack Foundation and Children’s Cancer Connection. If you’d like to support Phil’s campaign, visit TellFiveFriends.org and visit the How to Help page. We’ll also leave link in the fundraiser in the description of this podcast. If you are 45 years or older, Phil and I encourage you to talk to your doctor about screening colonoscopy. No, we advise you just to get a colonoscopy.

Phil Decker:
Yep.

Dr. Arnold:
Just tell your doctor you need to get one, not don’t talk to them about it. Just tell them, I want a colonoscopy. And tell five of your friends to get their colonoscopy as well. Finally, if you have been diagnosed with colon cancer and want to learn more about treatment and support and the wonderful services offered at Nassif Community Cancer Center, visit CommunityCancerCenter.org.

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