Making Lemonade: Phil Decker’s Story

As a stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis set back his racing, Phil Decker proclaimed, “If I can run that day…I run. Someone in a chemo chair or hospital bed would love to run. If I don’t run…shame on me.” Now Phil sets out to take on the 2023 TCS New York City Marathon, the largest marathon in the world, with the Livestrong team. Find inspiration in his story this Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

By Paula Wielinski, BSN RN

Victorious runner crosses finish line
Phil crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon

“Marathoners are my people”

Phil started running in 2016 at age 40, starting with a half mile and progressing incrementally. Finding time for one hour of running was easy to fit into his day and required no equipment. His first competitive endeavor was a 5K, but he quickly built up to a half marathon. Phil explains, “I do it differently than most people. I’m competitive; it’s just how I’m programmed.” Deciding to “up” his goals, in 2019, Phil set his eyes on a marathon. “Marathoners are my people! I decided if I was going to try, I would try to qualify for Boston.” Later that year, Phil ran the CNO Financial Group Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 3 hours and 10 minutes, qualifying for his dream race in 2021: the Boston Marathon. Running it once would prove not to be enough for Phil.

Making lemonade

In 2021, at age 46, Phil was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer during a routine colonoscopy, and the cancer had spread to his liver. He recalls thinking, “I’m not the guy who gets sick. I’m in great shape…Give me a break!” His treatment plan included five rounds of chemotherapy prior to surgery. During his first chemo treatment, “I got a backpack from I Know Jack, and I thought, ‘There is this family that has made lemonade from their lemons.’ I realized I have this awesome platform to raise some money.” Phil set his sights on raising funds for I Know Jack, a longtime Livestrong community partner, and The Children’s Cancer Connection. “I wanted to turn this thing (cancer) into a positive.”

Phil pitched to his surgeon the idea of running the Boston Marathon during a planned break in treatment. The surgeon, also a runner, told Phil they wouldn’t rule it out as an option, providing a glimmer of hope in his prognosis. That was all Phil needed to hear to keep motivated. Phil ran 35 miles during his second week of chemo. “Running during chemotherapy was my way of fighting back. Cancer doesn’t get a free ride in my body. It will get the hardest ride it’s ever gotten. The only way I wouldn’t run Boston is if I were in the hospital.”

During a month-long break from treatment, Phil ran a half marathon in preparation for Boston. He recalls, “I ran the first half with a friend and then ‘party raced’ the rest of the way in.” He found comfort and support in the camaraderie shared amongst his fellow runners.

Realizing his dream of “making lemonade from life’s lemons,” Phil ran the Boston Marathon during his break in treatment, recalling, “I had to run my second Boston much differently than my first as I was in treatment. My qualifying time was 3:10, and I ran it in 4:20. I had the best time ever, though, as I wore a shirt with my diagnosis on the back, and my friends in the Boston Buddies Running Club were all over the course competing and cheering in the crowd. My wife, kids, and parents were all able to come, and we shared a wonderful weekend in Boston! Even if I never get to run Boston again, I’ll be forever grateful I was able to somehow toe the line that day. We raised over $12,500 for I Know Jack Foundation and Children’s Cancer Connection.”

Be as strong as I can be

With his cancer treatment now complete and positive scans that show his progress, Phil has now set his sights on running with Livestrong at the 2023 TCS New York City Marathon to support cancer patients like himself. He shares, “I realized…every day I need to get up and be as strong as I can be THAT day, whether that means I walk, run, or climb a mountain.”

Phil has a marathon coach working with him on a 16-week structured marathon prep program. He gets up and runs six days a week (logging 40-60 miles weekly) and weightlifts three days a week. “If I can run that day…I run. Someone in a cancer chair would love to run. If I don’t run…shame on me.”

Boston Marathon Medalist

Tell five friends!

When diagnosed with cancer, Phil explains, “people offered to help in any way they could. I have a great family, friends, and health insurance. So, I told them to take my story and encourage everyone to get a colonoscopy. Tell five friends!” Faced with stage 4 colon cancer, Phil dug deep to help save his own life. In sharing his cancer journey, he has helped to save more lives through early diagnosis. He explains, “Four people that we know of came back with a cancer diagnosis.” Colon cancer typically develops from precancerous polyps that are detectable by colonoscopies. Such polyps can be removed during colonoscopies before they become cancerous. Early diagnosis of colon cancer is crucial because it is most treatable in the early stages. Phil explains, “The cancer family is a great family, but not one that you want to be part of.”

During March’s Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and all year long, Phil advocates specifically for colonoscopies as soon as a person is eligible through at-home test kits, though they may have false negatives or false positives. He wants people not to be deterred by the colonoscopy prep as there is now a pill and water prep option available. The current screening recommendation is age 45 for persons with no family history. Persons with a family history or other risk factors may be advised to screen at an earlier age or undergo a simple genetic test for certain cancers, as Phil’s daughters elected to do. Finding a genetic tendency does not mean that one will develop cancer. However, it may mean that there is a higher-than-average possibility of developing the disease. A healthcare provider may then recommend steps to take to reduce risk or increase the frequency of screening.

By raising money and awareness, Phil explains, “I want as many cancer patients as possible to be saved and provide them with comfort as they go along. You realize how terrible [colon cancer] is, and you don’t want others to go through it. Colonoscopies save lives and should be as routine as mammograms and skin cancer checks. Get a colonoscopy!”

Contribute to Phil’s mission of supporting cancer patients and advocating for prevention by donating here.

About Livestrong Endurance Events

When you participate in a Livestrong event, you are helping cancer patients access Livestrong survivorship programs and services. We serve over 50,000 cancer patients each year and we cannot do this without the blood, sweat, tears, and smiles of our amazing event participants.

The fight is personal. We have all been touched by cancer. Whether you choose to bike, run, or walk, dedicate your miles to a loved one who has battled this disease. Challenge yourself. Challenge cancer. Challenge accepted? View our full 2023 event lineup.

Making Lemonade: Phil Decker’s Story was originally published in Livestrong Voices on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.