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October Hero of the Month: Colorectal Cancer Survivor and Activist Michael Holtz

For this month's Hero of the Month column, Exact Sciences interviewed colorectal cancer survivor and activist Michael Holtz. Our questions are in bold and Michael's responses are italicized.

Exact Sciences: Thank you for participating in our Hero of the Month column. We are so pleased to be featuring you. Can you start off by describing your personal connection to colorectal cancer?

Michael Holtz: I am a proud colorectal cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with stage 3B colorectal cancer on March 27, 2012, five days after my 43rd birthday. My treatment plan followed the standard protocol: radiation therapy combined with oral chemo, surgery to remove the tumor, and then six months of FOLFOX chemotherapy.

What was not standard was the size of the tumor, which was much larger than my surgeon anticipated. He had to remove my entire rectum, which means I have a permanent colostomy. While it is a daily reminder that I once had cancer, it does not slow me down from enjoying life.  

What are you doing to raise awareness of this disease?

I have worked for the American Cancer Society and now the American Caner Society Cancer Action Network for more than 11 years. I am proud of the work we have done to encourage people to be tested for colorectal cancer, for the research we've conducted to treat the disease, and our legislative efforts to ensure everyone who needs one has access to colorectal cancer screenings.

I'm also proud of the work we at ACS CAN are now doing around palliative care to ensure that all cancer patients get treatment for any side effects that result from treatment, like pain or neuropathy. I was fortunate to have a great medical team that continuously monitored for side effects, but not all patients are so fortunate. I still deal with neuropathy and my medical team is still working to help alleviate the symptoms.

Tell us a little bit more about your blog, Outrunning Cancer. What was your inspiration?

I was a health and fitness blogger before I was diagnosed. My previous blog, Goodbye, Mr. 300, was a chronicle of my journey to lose weight. I had lost 100 pounds and become a marathon runner/walker before my diagnosis. In fact, I ran/walked the Rock 'n Roll New Orleans Marathon just three weeks before my diagnosis and did the Covenant Health Knoxville Half Marathon five days after. 

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Michael (red shirt) pictured with Dave Hussa from the Rock 'n Roll New Orleans Marathon and Olympic distance running legends Rod Dixon and Frank Shorter.

With Outrunning Cancer, I hope to demonstrate that cancer is not an end. Rather, it can be a new beginning. And my life after cancer is definitely filled with new beginnings. I've tried stand-up paddle boarding, I've been doing boot camp-style workouts and this month I'm opening a gym with a group of friends called the Adaptive Fitness Warehouse. My hope with the gym is to help people find a little of what I've found  a way out of obesity and the ability to do just about anything I want to with adaptations rather than limitations.  

In your opinion, why is it important for people to be educated about the disease and the prevention methods? 

Education about colorectal cancer and prevention is important to me because I don't want people to experience what I've been through. Being physically active, getting proper nutrition and being tested are not always easy, but they're important.

I also think it's critical that people talk to their doctors. At 43, I would not normally have been eligible for the colonoscopy that found my cancer, but I shared concerns about some symptoms I was having with my doctor and he referred me immediately. Because of the aggressive nature of the cancer I had, another couple of weeks or another month of waiting could have resulted in a completely different ending to my story.

In the part of the country where I live, people say they don't want to know if they have cancer, which is so short-sighted. No one wants to hear those words, but the sooner you know the more likely something can be done about it.

What are your thoughts on what Exact Sciences is trying to accomplish? 

The idea of a fecal DNA test for colorectal cancer is exciting. Anything that makes testing easier is definitely a good thing.  

On your blog, you have many pictures of cowbells. How are they significant in your cancer journey? 

As I mentioned, I was a marathon runner/walker before I was diagnosed, and I love the sound of cowbells on a marathon course. I mentioned to some co-workers that I saw my cancer journey as the ultimate marathon and before I knew it cowbells started arriving from all over the country. When I would return from radiation therapy treatments, my co-workers would stand in our lobby and ring cowbells as I walked in the door.

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I have more than 100 cowbells, all signed and decorated by co-workers, volunteers, friends, and family members. And they are all on display in my office, a daily reminder of how loved and supported my wife and I were during my cancer journey. I mostly highly treasure a cowbell from the percussion set of a friend's husband, a drummer who died of esophageal cancer. Another important cowbell is from a runner friend whose wife rang this particular bell during his many marathons. I'm honored to have been entrusted with important artifacts from other people's lives.

Lastly, what is one thing that you would like people to take away from your story?

The most important thing I learned during my journey was the importance of gratitude. It's easy to be grateful for the big things  family, friends, health, home  but it's easy to let the little things, little gifts pass us by.

I learned the word Eucharisteo from the author Ann Voskamp, who writes about gratitude in her book, one thousand gifts. She writes about how God gives us little gifts every moment of the day  a butterfly floating through our field of vision, sunlight reflected through stained glass, the laughter of children – things we don't often notice. If we catch some of those moments, our entire perspective can change.  

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Topics: Hero of the Month

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