Eric Powell is a familiar face with the Colon Cancer Coalition. He’s been a regular at Get Your Rear in Gear – Twin Cities for years, and actively advocates with multiple other colorectal cancer organizations since his diagnosis in 2007. Besides the Twin Cities race, he attends multiple events every year. Just this month, Eric attended the Fireside Chat with PGA TOUR Pro Tom Lehman, hosted by Fight Colorectal Cancer and Exact Sciences, the makers of Cologuard. As soon as the event ended, Eric drove all the way to participate in Get Your Rear in Gear – Green Bay.
Eric recalls the days leading up to his diagnosis. While attending the Minnesota State Fair in August 2006, he stopped at one of the health booths provided for attendees. Eric had done some blood and blood pressure testing and was told to reach out to his physician. Eric knew as soon as he got home he would have to tell his father, who was a physician with over 30 years of experience.
Eric was working third shift at the time, as a security guard. “In an 8-hour shift, I was on the toilet quite a bit and the stools were bloody stools.” His father contacted an old colleague who was a gastroenterologist to help run some tests. “Actually, they didn’t do the colonoscopy right away. They did other tests because they weren’t expecting colon cancer. They were trying to figure out what was going on so they did some other tests to figure out what was causing [my symptoms].”
Eric was diagnosed at age 34, after having his colonoscopy in April 2007. “The GI doctor actually came to the house to tell me the news. I remember that night fairly well. It was right before I had to work that night, a Thursday I believe, I felt pretty numb actually. I don’t even know how I made it to work that night, to be honest with you. I guess something in me knew that I would have to tell my supervisor and everything. Somehow I made it to work even though I was just told that I had cancer. I felt pretty numb.”
Eric’s work history as a security officer was key in figuring out his diagnosis. “One thing I have found, work wise, and security officers tend to have some of the odd shifts, overnights that sort of thing. My doctor mentioned how shift work can have an effect on cancers. He recommended that I stay away from the third shift. There’s a lot of reasoning behind that, and it’s not just cancer, but with a lot of different health risks with working third shirt.” Eric recommends finding a work schedule with shifts that help your body.
There was no family history of colon cancer, and Eric had no prior knowledge of it. “That was all new to me. Also, being 34, I wasn’t really at the age of where anybody would’ve expected it be there. One thing I learned since then is that there’s a lot of young people, even younger than me.”
In the months after his diagnosis, Eric tried to find ways of connecting to other cancer patients and organizations. He attended New Richmond, Wisconsin’s Relay For Life in June 2007, but found it difficult to fit in. “The one thing that I took away from that was that it was hard to relate to people because Relay For Life is for all types of cancer and the ones that were there that did have colon cancer. It was hard to relate to them because there weren’t many people that were my age, plus I had a fairly new diagnosis, too.”
Eric started his treatment with chemotherapy and radiation. It was during his visits that he heard about Get Your Rear in Gear – Twin Cities. “I think it was pretty early, they had started it a few years before that. I heard about it and I was like, ‘Well that sounds interesting. I’ll have to go to that.’ And that’s when I really was able to be around people that were specifically colon cancer, and I was able to get connected that way.”
While there, Eric ran into a member of the Colon Club, finding another organization he could be a part of. “I started talking to him and found out about the Colon Club, which is specifically for people under 50, to make people aware that you can get it before 50. That’s really when my advocacy started, is through that.” Eric started talking about ways to get involved and saw The Colon Club had a calendar featuring young colorectal cancer survivors, called The Colondar. “I was in The Colondar. We went to New York to do the photo shoot in 2009, and the calendar came out in 2010.”
After finding another group to advocate for, Eric continued to search and is also active with Fight Colorectal Cancer. Eric’s experience with all three organizations has given him knowledge about colorectal cancer that he continues to share with others, advocating especially about young adult colorectal cancer.
“I know a lot of people are surprised, that they’d look at me and they think that there’s still this stigma that it’s something that you would get when you’re older and they don’t expect that somebody that’s younger like them, would get it.”
Eric also advocates about being able to get access to those who need it. “Where people live has a big influence; people in a rural area or people that are of different economic background, they may not have the resources to do so either, or the knowledge even. If you’re in a rural area where you have to travel 100 miles to the nearest facility that makes it more difficult for people to take time off of work, that sort of thing, to do that. We definitely need to make it more accessible.”
Regarding the new screening age requirement of 45, Eric feels it’s a start, but could be better. “Kind of a little bit of mixed feelings just because I mean I was younger than 45, I was 34, and I think that they can still lower the age, but it’s a step in the right direction. It has brought more awareness by talking about it more.”
Eric credits his mother as his biggest supporter for helping him through his treatments. He mentioned how his mother, being a caretaker for himself and his father, who was also ill at the time, was so organized. “She was able to line up rides to and from chemo and radiation from where we were to Maplewood Cancer Center. It was maybe like at least a good 30 minutes, maybe even more. She had a team that she would line up to help with rides, that sort of thing. One thing that I found very supportive was that there was always somebody with me at the appointment, so I wasn’t alone and they were able to take notes, that sort of thing, because when you have these appointments, your mind is going to all different places, so you’re not going to remember everything that they’re saying at these appointments. I found that useful.”
Eric makes sure to make others aware that staying physically active is key to staying healthy. “I’ve always considered myself as an active person, that’s one thing that I like about the Midwest in particular, is all four seasons. One thing I learned after the diagnosis is that if you want to prevent recurrence, it helps if you stay active. So at first, I started doing the running, like the 5ks, that sort of thing. When I was 40 I did a full marathon. I want to say that within the last 2-3 years where I incorporated a lot more biking, because it’s a little easier on your knees. I always try to stay active as much as possible.”
Eric is 11 years out and currently staying active; not just physically but with each organization he’s a part of. “I try to stay as active as I can be, definitely try. Advocacy work is just getting the word out there.”RETURN TO FACES OF BLUE GET YOUR REAR IN GEAR & TOUR DE TUSH - TWIN CITIES LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUNG ADULT COLORECTAL CANCER