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Phil Decker Was 45 With No Symptoms When He Was Diagnosed with Colon Cancer. Now, This Architect of Change Wants You to Tell 5 Friends to Get Screened

Phil Decker Was 45 With No Symptoms When He Was Diagnosed with Colon Cancer. Now, This Architect of Change Wants You to Tell 5 Friends to Get Screened

By Meghan Rabbitt
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Phil Decker was 45 years old, getting ready to run a marathon, and arguably in the best shape of his adult life when he went for a routine physical and his primary care physician told him to get a colonoscopy.

It was Fall 2021, and the American Cancer Society’s guidelines on colorectal cancer screenings had just changed from age 50 to age 45 for a first colonoscopy. Luckily, Decker’s doctor was on top of this news—and didn’t let him off the hook when he balked at her suggestion.

“I walked out of that physical and thought, ‘How am I going to get out of this colonoscopy?’” says Decker. But his doctor had submitted the prescription for a colonoscopy for him, and when the office called him with an appointment time, he felt he had to go through with it.

A couple months later, Decker went for that colonoscopy and got shocking news the next day: He had Stage IV colon cancer. Despite feeling great and having no symptoms, he had a 5-centimeter mass in his colon and the cancer had spread to his liver.

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

Within weeks, Decker had a treatment plan. When he started chemotherapy treatments in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he got a backpack filled with all kinds of goodies to support him through his treatment. It was curated by I Know Jack, a non-profit that supports cancer patients and their families from diagnosis through survivorship—and gives everyone in the area a “Jack Pack” like the one Decker had received.

“That night, I read the flyer about the organization that had created the backpack and found out it was started by a family whose son, Jack, was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer when he was 5 years old,” says Decker. “He had a rough go, but now he’s 23—and he and his family were on a mission to help others.”

Decker was moved. “I loved how positive this family was—how they got serious lemons and made lemonade,” he says. “I thought, that’s how I want to be in life. How can I do that?”

Decker and his wife started brainstorming. What type of foundation could they start to spread the word about his story and the importance of screenings? They wanted it to be simple. They wanted it to have a big impact.

“Something reminded us of that phrase we all say when we get to a certain age,” says Decker, “about how you can usually count your best friends on one hand.” They knew the impact Decker’s story might have on people, and they wanted to do something to spread the word about the importance of early screening.

And so, Tell 5 Friends was born. It’s a non-profit with a goal of having everyone who hears about it tell five friends to make sure they get a colonoscopy if they have any symptoms or when they turn 45. They’re also on a mission to support cancer charities that help cancer patients and their families, and that support cancer research.

Tell 5 Friends is Already Making an Impact

It turns out one of the first people Decker’s story impacted was a friend of his own. Before his chemo started, he and his wife went out to eat with a group of their friends—a last supper, of sorts, before Decker started his treatment. They were there with six other couples. After he shared his story of the colonoscopy that almost didn’t happen for him, one of his friends mentioned she’d been having some symptoms and said she’d be making an appointment for a colonoscopy the next day. She did—and found out she had Stage III colon cancer.

“I’ve had 30 people tell me that my story inspired them to get a colonoscopy and that those screenings showed precancerous polyps,” says Decker. “We’ve heard from four people who were diagnosed with cancer.”

To raise money for Tell 5 Friends and other organizations that help cancer patients, Decker is still running marathons. In fact, he ran the Boston marathon in 2022 during his first round of chemotherapy. “The first question I had for my oncologist when he was going over my treatment plan was, ‘Can I run the Boston marathon?’” says Decker. “I didn’t hear no—so I took it as a yes.” Decker raised $12,000 running that marathon with a chemo port in his chest and with a surgery scheduled a couple weeks after he crossed the finish line. That surgery and recuperation was tough—but it didn’t stop Decker from running the Chicago marathon later that year to raise more money (nearly $30,000 to date) for cancer patients.

“My hope is if you take my story and you go tell five friends, and then they tell five friends, that’s 25 people who are going to get screened,” says Decker. “I’ll guarantee you we’ll save one life in that group. I promise you that will happen. And that’s powerful stuff.”

Phil Decker is in remission, and planning on running the New York City marathon in November 2023. You can learn more—and help him on his mission to help those affected by cancer by donating—here.

Meghan Rabbitt

Meghan Rabbitt is a Senior Editor at The Sunday Paper. Learn more at:

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