Believe, Commit, Achieve
I made a promise: if anything ever happened to two people, I would leave colorectal cancer advocacy for good. Those two people were Jim Huber and Sarah DeBord. Jim was fondly known as my “cancer husband.” From the moment I met Jim, I knew we would be friends forever. He was intelligent, warm, and kind-hearted – a guy whom everyone loved. I became part of Jim’s real family. His wife and I spoke constantly, I loved on his kids, and I even called his Dad, “Dad” because I felt so close to him. Jim and I talked about everything on a very deep level. And as I watched his colorectal cancer progress from Stage III to Stage IV and eventually take him from this life in July 2019, my heart sank into profound sadness.
Sarah and I also bonded instantly. I met her at a colorectal cancer awareness event and she captivated me with her wit, grit, and sarcasm. She was my people. We were both in stage IV active treatment when our paths intersected. I asked her about her disease status & she nonchalantly showed me a scan image of her lungs covered with tiny dots and said, “Well, these are all tumors, but I’m doing fine.” I hid how freaked out I was as I marveled at her courage and resilience. When she asked me if I’d consider coming to work for the non-profit organization where she was employed, I think I was still in so much awe of her that I couldn’t say no, even though I knew zero about the NPO world and had no plans on being employed. From then until her passing in July, 2020, Sarah and I were a force to be reckoned with. She was the tough chick and I was the big softie. Our work and play styles complimented each other perfectly. We would call each other just to talk about our big ideas on how we would change the colorectal cancer advocacy world. She coined us as, “Babes Who Hustle” and boy did we. I still can’t believe she’s gone.
From 2016-2019, these two incredible individuals were the epicenter of my colorectal cancer activism universe. I look back and have zero idea how I did what I did during that time while in treatment and caring for my intellectually and developmentally disabled son. I was on a mission. I spoke, wrote, and volunteered for eight different non-profit organizations in some way, shape, or form. I was the subject of a “viral” media story that inspired me to also launch my own website so people with colorectal cancer could reach out to me for free support. I was driven by a fair amount of “survivor guilt;” why was I thriving while other very good people were not? I knew I had to give back – to show my appreciation to God and the universe for me doing so well. But at the core of all of my efforts were my two inspirations, Jim and Sarah.
Losing Jim was a huge blow. He started a fundraiser called “Save Our Butts” which across two years raised $125,000 for colorectal cancer awareness and screening. All three of us (Jim, Sarah, and I) were affected by early age onset colorectal cancer (i.e. diagnosed under the age of 50), so many of our efforts focused on the skyrocketing trend of younger people being hit with this disease with no explanation. And then as Sarah started to decline, I wrapped myself in a thick blanket of denial that I could lose her. When the sad news eventually came, I was on the phone with someone who knew about my vow. I’m a Virgo. If there’s one thing you should know about Virgos, we keep our word. So, through my tears, in a blaze of keystrokes, I unfollowed anyone and everyone having to do with colorectal cancer – organizations, survivors, patients, caregivers, colleagues, physicians, friends. All gone. I wanted to be as far away as I could be from colorectal cancer. I was filled with anger, as it seemed that my hard work was futile. Why continue? I was done. I officially retired from colorectal cancer.
So amidst the pandemic, from July, 2020 to January, 2021, I was colorectal cancer free on all of my social media feeds. It was a special time for me, as in the midst of it, I celebrated my 50th birthday in September and 5 years of no evidence of disease in October. I really just wanted to get on with my life and put all of the cancer crap (pun intended) in my rear view mirror. I focused on my new advocacy work with HIMSS as a “digital influencer” advocating for innovations in technology to improve healthcare for patients and caregivers.
But in January, I received an email from Erin Peterson, whom I worked with at Colon Cancer Coalition asking if I wanted to be “virtually paired” with a pro golfer in the Cologuard Classic in Tuscon, AZ, February 26th-28th. I ignored it at first, but when she resent it with the words “no effort is required by you” in bold, I thought, well, ok. I don’t golf, but my husband and older son do, and I am a huge fan for 25 years. I have a definite favorite golfer. He is fiercely competitive but doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is gracious, personable, classy, tall, and super cute. Like me, he just turned 50 and has dimples. He is Phil Mickelson.
On February 19th, I had all but forgotten about the Cologuard Classic thing, until I received an email around 8pm that evening saying, You are confirmed to be paired with PGA TOUR Champions professional and World Golf Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Of everyone I could’ve been paired with, I got Phil. Phil Mickelson would be wearing my name as a colorectal cancer survivor on his hat. What were the chances? And he only committed to the tournament that day. And I had received the second dose of the vaccine 4 days before. These signs all pointed to one thing. My husband urged me: “You gotta go.”
Leaving the complex care of our son in my supportive husband’s hands, with no guarantee of meeting Phil, and on my own dime, I booked a flight & a hotel in Tucson on an adventure of a lifetime. Spoiler alert: I met Phil Mickelson. As everyone told me to stand back from Phil and don’t approach him because he’s a germophobe, he said, “Oh Stacy, I have to give you a hug.” And if that wasn’t enough, I asked him for a second hug. And there were pictures and interviews and major media (like The Golf Channel and The Today Show) and a lot of tears. It was incredible. And intensely emotional. No words can adequately describe it. It was a surreal experience after fighting for my life against all odds to walk down the fairway behind Phil Mickelson. And what is Phil really like? He is gracious, personable, classy, tall, and super cute; exactly the guy you see on TV.
But the best, most rewarding and meaningful part of all of it was the awareness it raised for colorectal cancer. I received emails and messages from people from all over the country telling me that they were battling colorectal cancer and my story gave them hope. Or that they had lost a family member to colorectal cancer and seeing me so happy made them happy. Or that they didn’t know how big of a problem colorectal cancer was, and that they were going to talk to their doctor about getting screened. In a year filled with mostly darkness, my encounter with Phil shined a bright light. It had a huge positive impact where impact was sorely needed. For the third leading cause of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death, success stories like mine are hard to come by. And they need to be echoed and amplified to inspire those in the fight.
Jim was a huge golfer and Sarah worked for the Colon Cancer Coalition. They both would’ve been over the moon for me, and I know somewhere out there, they are. Neither of them would want me to retire from colorectal cancer advocacy. They would want me to continue to share my story to help others. So, Phil, thanks; you brought me out of retirement, and our story brought a lot of people a lot of much-needed joy. Congratulations on your PGA Championship victory and your history-making milestone as the oldest player to win a major. You have shown us all the power of believe, commit, achieve, my fellow 50 year old!