116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A Robins man has completed this year’s Boston Marathon, all while battling stage 4 cancer.
Phil Decker — who is an active and otherwise healthy 46-year-old — was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer after a routine colonoscopy in January 2022.
Despite the rigors of chemotherapy, the Robins man was able to train for and successfully complete the annual marathon race in Boston on April 18. His time was four hours, 24 minutes and 40 seconds.
“If I set a goal, I’m going to do everything I can to complete it,” he said. ”I didn’t see any reason not to.“
In addition to achieving his personal goals, Decker is using the accomplishment as an opportunity to raise funds for community organizations and to raise awareness about the importance of routine colonoscopies — which he said saved his life.
His primary care provider, Dr. Alecia Allen at UnityPoint Clinic, recommended Decker schedule a screening during a routine physical.
Decker had no symptoms and no family history of colon cancer, and had even just completed his first Boston Marathon in October 2021. Still, Allen encouraged him to schedule a colonoscopy because of his age.
“As a physician, I send young people to screening with intent to find nothing, or in a worst-case scenario, precancerous polyp that never progresses to a cancerous state,” Allen said. “You don’t expect to find advanced cancer at 46.”
New guidelines published in May 2021 by the United States Preventive Services Task Force, the group behind cancer screening recommendations, lowered the recommended age for colon cancer screenings to age 45. Previously, the recommended age was 50.
That’s because experts say it’s becoming more common for individuals under the age of 50 to receive a cancer diagnosis. The National Cancer Institute has found the rate of colorectal cancer among those under the age of 50 has more than doubled over the past three decades.
Local physicians have seen that uptick in earlier diagnoses, which also comes at a time when patients may have missed out on routine screenings over the past two years, said Andrea Watkinson, director of the Nassif Community Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids.
Following his diagnosis, Decker began receiving treatment at the Nassif Cancer Center. He’s scheduled to undergo 16 weeks of chemotherapy as well as a surgery to remove the cancer from his liver and colon.
The Robins man trained between chemotherapy sessions, carving out time to run when he felt well enough to run. Matt Schmitz, cancer exercise specialist at the Nassif Cancer Center, was among the providers who made sure he had enough calories, stayed hydrated and was otherwise healthy enough to maintain his training schedule.
“It’s remarkable, what he’s done so far,” Schmitz said.
Decker said his mindset has always been to complete goals he sets out to do, but training also offered him a much needed reprieve from the cancer diagnosis. Those hours running gave him time to focus on something that wasn’t cancer, he said.
“Running is my way to fight back and just be normal for an hour or two,” Decker said. “It was my time. It wasn’t cancer’s time, it was my time. That made a huge difference in my psyche.”
As he trained, Decker was raising money for two organizations that support cancer patients and their families: the I Know Jack Foundation and the Children’s Cancer Connection. In total, Decker raised more than $12,800.
I Know Jack provides backpacks to cancer patients at the Nassif Community Cancer Center with items to help patients throughout treatment. Decker said the funds raised will cover the cost of 60 backpacks.
The Children’s Cancer Connection is an Iowa-based organization that supports families impacted by a pediatric cancer diagnosis through programs and outings. Funds raised by Decker will help finance the cost for 13 children to attend one of the organization’s camps.
Decker also launched a new initiative and website called tell5friends.org, which encourages individuals to tell five friends to seek out a colonoscopy as part of routine cancer screening. By sharing his story, he hopes he can help others and spread more awareness about colon cancer in young individuals.
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