June 13, 2015, I was diagnosed with Stage III Colon Cancer. I had been dealing with a lot of abdominal pain for about 5 months and we could not pinpoint why. Then I ended up in the emergency room and after hours of tests and procedures the doctor walked in, closed the door behind her and pulled up a chair. We had The Talk…she said, “We found a mass on your colon, it’s big and you aren’t going home without surgery.” My cancer journey began.
You can listen to my story on my podcast, but I had surgery two days later then went ahead with 6 months of chemotherapy. I hated chemo, it was like wearing a wet blanket. The further I got into it, the heavier that blanket got. I rang that bell signaling the end of chemo January 8, 2016. In my mind I was done with cancer too. In August of 2016 I did a small sprint triathlon, a pool swim then a 10-mile bike and a 5K. I felt like that was me flipping cancer off. I was done with triathlons. I didn’t train much and even though it was small, it kicked my ass. But I was still working myself into better shape. Stage III Colon Cancer affected me, I knew I needed to eat better and exercise regularly.
February 23, 2016, I got The Call. I was doing scans every 3 months at the time, so I was expecting the phone call, but I was not expecting the conversation. I had a new oncologist, and this was only the 2nd time speaking with her. “Mr. De Gruy, we found a mass in your lungs. It is small but it grew fast.” I had just gotten off the elevator at East Jefferson Hospital to see my mom and I remember just sitting down in the little waiting room. My head was spinning, I did not know what to think. Then she said, “The mass is up against your aorta, we cannot do a normal needle biopsy. I am going on vacation to Disney World with my family for 9 days. We’ll talk when I get back.” I was reeling when I tell Christina she will be too, and my doctor is going to the happiest place on earth for 9 days while we have all these questions that most have not even formed yet.
I remember telling Christina that I can’t do this again. I was scared, colon cancer is the 3rd leading cause of death in men, the leading cancer death in men and 90% of those deaths come from metastasis. All I could think about were my wife and my 4 sons. I lost my dad at the age of 12 midway through 7th grade. I wasn’t prepared and knew they weren’t.
For the next 2 months we had consultations and a failed procedure to get to the tumor then on April 12, 2017, I had surgery to remove half of my left lung and all the cancer. During those 2 months I had done enough research to convince me I wasn’t doing chemo again. I would beat cancer naturally with a lifestyle change. I closed my business (less stress), adopted the Mediterranean Diet (healthy eating) and read an article that said endurance training builds the immune system against terminal diseases like cancer (exercise). I told my oncologist I was going from Stage IV to 140.6 and completing a full Ironman Triathlon.
Three days after my lung surgery I walked out of the hospital, meeting Christina in the parking lot. That was me making a statement, “you don’t need a wheelchair Phil, you’re going to be an Ironman.”
Stage III affected me, but Stage IV changed my life! 10 months after surgery on a double dog dare, I ran the Rock & Roll Half Marathon in New Orleans. That was the farthest I had ever run and the first step on my Stage IV to 140.6 journey. I’ve also completed 3 more sprint triathlons, another half marathon and a full marathon. Still struggling mightily with the swim I’m not ready to ascend to an Ironman just yet. A year into the pandemic with all the races canceled I needed a challenge and completed David Goggins’ 4x4x48. I ran 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours. A few days later I signed up for The New Orleans Ultra Marathon, 50 miles through the city. I had about 6 months to train.
Through all these events and the training leading up to them, hundreds of miles out by myself pounding the pavement or on my bike or struggling through a swim, I felt enormous guilt. I had seemingly walked away from cancer and hadn’t looked back. How was that possible? When you’re diagnosed with cancer you ask God why often. When you’re cancer free and able to run hundreds of miles you ask God why often.
I would get phone calls, texts and emails from people affected by cancer wanting to know how I did it. Survivors guilt was eating me up, I couldn’t let myself feel good about the success I was having. I knew there was a greater purpose and I prayed about it a lot.
In the last few miles of my ultra, somewhere on the lonely streets of Gentilly because I was dead last, I said to myself, “I want to start a non-profit foundation to raise funds for kids who have lost a parent to cancer.” A few days later in a group text I asked my boys if it resonated with them, and they agreed. Then I started talking to friends and the excitement grew.
Of course, the questions started, and most often I was asked what would this money be for? After losing my dad there were things, I wanted that I felt were out of my mom’s budget. I wanted to go to a wrestling camp, but I knew we couldn’t afford that. I believe there are 1000’s of stories like that and that is what I want to help with.
I believe that the cancer journey and the endurance journey are remarkably similar in that in both you are going to have to power through physical struggles as well as mental struggles and you will need a dedicated support system. My endurance journey will continue but now with a purpose, to grow Running for Dreams and help kids realize dreams they feel are beyond their family’s means now.
If you’re a kid, 8-18 or know one that has dealt with the loss of a parent from cancer that may feel they are missing something we can help with please share their story with me and let’s see what we can do for them.
On October 1, 2022, I’m once again running The New Orleans Ultra Marathon. 50 miles through our city, Running for Dreams!
Thanks for checking in,