For more than a decade, doctor after doctor told Tate MacDowell, 37, that he had hemorrhoids. Tate is a freelance video editor and works on a computer. Doctors said he sat too much. They told the fit skier and surfer to drink less and get more exercise. Another told him to wait for the symptoms to get worse.
While hemorrhoids could have been a problem at one point, Tate says, he knew something more was wrong.
“After a while, you feel like you’re kind of crazy,” he said. “You’re walking around trying to get all these people to look in your butt.”
Finally, Tate saw a gastrointestinal surgeon who casually suggested a colonoscopy, but noted that it wasn’t urgent. Tate was too young for colorectal cancer, according to all the doctors he saw. With no family history, they said, there was no reason to worry.
After many delays, Tate had a colonoscopy. It revealed a one-inch tumor diagnosed as stage II colon cancer, which shocked everyone. Immediately, Tate entered treatment.
“I did everything that the guidelines recommend for stage II, but as soon as I was finishing up a year of treatments, they started noticing spots on my lung,” he says. “Within months, I was restaged to IV.”
The journey Tate has taken to a stage IV diagnosis is not unique among young-onset colorectal cancer patients. A recent study by the Alliance showed 82% of young-onset cases were initially misdiagnosed.
Last year, a nurse treating Tate told him about the Undy RunWalk in San Diego. The Undy is a national 5K run-walk series that aims to get the conversation started about colorectal cancer and raise funds for research, prevention, and patient and family support.
Tate saw the Undy as an opportunity to gather friends and support an important cause. On race day, wearing an ostomy bag and in the middle of chemotherapy, he finished the 5K in a brisk 28 minutes. He even cruised passed his surgeon on the course.
“She was like, ‘What the … ? I can’t even believe you’re doing this!’” Tate remembers.
The truth is, moving makes Tate feel better. He’s always been active—a surfer, a skier, a biker. Many of his films, released through his company, Death Cookie Entertainment, and in partnership with other production companies, focus on action sports and adventure. It’s when he stops moving that the chemotherapy drags him down. He even uses a stationary bike while on the chemo pump.
“As soon as I get a little exercise, it seems to push whatever’s in there through,” Tate says.
This year, Tate ran the race in 22:40 minutes, taking first place among survivors, as his team of more than a dozen friends and family raised $5,875.
When the Undy RunWalk came up this year, Tate took part again. He wanted to raise awareness and money for the Alliance. He also wanted to ensure that those who donated to his cause received something in return.
During chemotherapy treatments, Tate sometimes painted with watercolors to pass the time. He’d gotten pretty good, so he offered a painting to anyone who donated to his race page.
“One thing I don’t like when you make donation is, you give your money and you never hear anything about it being received,” Tate says. “So I wanted to give people an original piece of art to let them know I’m thankful.”
For each donation—more than 50 now—he would tape up the canvas at night, paint in layers throughout the day, and sign each piece. He then biked to the post office with big stacks of work, refilling on stamps. Donors received an abstract scene with layered shades of blue and orange.
“It kind of looks as if you’re looking down from the sky at a mountain range at sunset, or it could look like waves washing up on the beach,” Tate says. “It depends on how you want to interpret it.”
The symptoms and the statistics
“I’m so frustrated with doctors saying that you’re too young,” Tate says. “I was on it. I did everything I was supposed to do. I told them my symptoms, that my stool was narrowing, that there was blood, and they just said you’re too young and it’s not in your family.”
He says he wants doctors to know one thing: “The medical establishment really needs to realize that they need to diagnose based off the symptoms, they can’t go off of the statistics.”
In March, we observe National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Join us as we build our nation of passionate allies, fiercely determined to end this disease within our lifetime.