By Emily Williams
Philip Little tends to listen to that little voice in his head. So, when it told him to get an early colonoscopy last year, he listened.
His decision to go ahead and have the procedure at the age of 44 may very well have saved his life. Doctors were able to detect stage I colon cancer before his body developed any symptoms.
When he was diagnosed, he was devastated. He had three young children with his wife, Leigh, 11-year-old twins and an 8-year-old.
“To myself, I was saying goodbye,” Little said. “I thought it was the end for me.”
His outlook quickly changed as he met with his surgeon, Dr. Marty Heslin, interacted with other GI cancer patients and powered through his treatment.
“If I live through this,” became “when I get through this,” and Little developed a personal mission to use his experience to help others.
“Cancer is truly the scourge of our generation,” Little said.
He became actively involved in the Robert E. Reed Gastrointestinal Oncology Research Foundation through Heslin and his cousin, Walter Little, who is a board member. Now he will be one of the foundation’s 2019 Faces of GI Cancer.
Excluding skin cancer, the American Cancer Society identifies colorectal cancer as the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women.
It is estimated that more than 145,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with colorectal cancers in 2019. This form of cancer is expected to claim more than 51,000 lives.
Though the overall death rate has dropped, the death rate of patients younger than 55 has increased 1% every year from 2007 to 2016.
“It’s my understanding that if you catch a lot of these cancers early enough, they are highly treatable,” Little said.
Through the Reed Foundation, Little and his fellow volunteers and advocates don’t push to fund that fancy new piece of equipment so much as hope.
“With a lot of these GI cancers, the symptoms don’t develop until later stages,” Little said. “So, it’s often about buying more time. How can we make you as comfortable as possible while your life is extended. Even if it is just a few months or a year, they have that time to be with their family a little longer.”
While there is hope that researchers will find cures for all of the different types of cancer, in the meantime the push is to get patients diagnosed sooner and provide better treatment options.
‘A Man of Faith’
“I’m not someone who is afraid to go to a doctor,” Little said. “I won’t just sit around and wait for something to get worse. If it’s for my piece of mind, I have no problem going ahead in.”
The idea popped into his head at his annual physical.
“As I was leaving, I just asked the doctor about possibly having a colonoscopy,” Little said.
He quickly learned that colonoscopies aren’t typically covered by insurance companies until the age of 50. So, it became a question as to whether Little wanted it enough to shell out the extra cash.
The idea began to marinate as he left the doctor’s office, and a short while later he decided to make the appointment.
“I was a man of faith before this, and I think that had a lot to do with my decision.” He said. “I was just listening to whatever that voice was in the back of my mind.”
The colonoscopy itself wasn’t a problem for him. Sure, he didn’t love not being able to eat for 24 hours, but sleeping through the procedure made it pretty painless. It wasn’t until he awoke to somber faces that he felt the weight of his decision.
A New Perspective
He was told that a polyp had been found in his colon, and there was a chance that it would be cancerous.
The process that followed was a blur. He got an appointment with Dr. Martin Heslin at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, and surgery was soon scheduled.
“I had surgery on a Tuesday, and thankfully he was able to do all of it laparoscopically. Then I was home by Friday afternoon,” he said.
Little was back in action fairly quickly, so quickly that he didn’t have time to tell all of his friends that he had cancer.
In terms of his early diagnosis and recovery time, he counts himself as fortunate in his battle. It gave him perspective.
“It’s all about perspective,” he said. “I truly believe that going through this made me a better person that sees the world differently.”
He sees it as his duty to make other people aware and show them that cancer isn’t always a death sentence, especially if you catch it early.
The only tried and true way to get a colon cancer diagnosis is with a colonoscopy, yet Little has encountered countless people who either were considered “too young” to have one or were avoiding the task.
He spoke with a doctor at Children’s of Alabama during his battle. The doctor was stage III and beat it, but just before he got his diagnosis, he could hardly walk a block without getting exhausted.
“He was a doctor and he still didn’t go get tested until it had gotten to that point,” Little said.
“I think there are a lot of people who maybe just don’t want to know,” he said. “They would rather not know than find out something is wrong and worry about it.
“I gave a talk a couple of months ago on perspective to my company,” Little said. “There were 350 people in the audience, and afterwards I can’t tell you how many people have told me they went and got a scope.”
Some thank him for giving them that push they needed, while others rib him for guilting them into getting one even though the results were all clear.
Either way, Little is proud that he is reaching people.
Reed Foundation Introduces 2019 Faces of
GI Cancer During Iron Bowl Kick-Off
The Robert E. Reed Gastrointestinal Oncology Research Foundation will host its annual “Finish the Fight” Iron Bowl Kickoff Party on Nov. 21 at The Club.
The event will celebrate 17 years of fundraising for GI cancer research, awareness efforts and patient support at the University of Alabama at Birmingham under the direction of Dr. Martin J. Heslin.
At the event, the foundation will celebrate its 2019 Faces of GI Cancer, patients and survivors who represent a spectrum of gastrointestinal cancers.
This year’s honorees are Minette Wiggins, gastric cancer; Philip Little, colon cancer; Nicole Robinson, pancreatic cancer; and Dr. William Baxley, metastatic colon cancer to the liver.
The casino-themed event, hosted by honorary chairs Jenny and Lee Edwards, will include celebrity football players, the Denny Chimes Wine Pull and the Toomer’s Corner Liquor Toss. There will be a buffet dinner, live music and a silent auction coordinated by the Reed Foundation Women’s Committee.
For more information, visit reedgifoundation.com.