Stage III Rectal Cancer
Age at Diagnosis: 23

Twenty-year rectal cancer survivor, Evan Cantwell describes himself like this:

“According to my wife, I’ve been told that I am kind, thoughtful, creative, and strong. Although, she’s a little biased. I have the most loving and caring wife, Charlotte, who has saved my life more than once. It’s a little awkward talking about me as a survivor or being strong without considering how many times my wife was sleeping awkwardly in the ER hospital chair at 2:00 am, traveling to NYC and staying in the Ronald McDonald House by herself as my girlfriend when I was in Sloan Kettering, and helping me learn how to walk again after my first major surgery. We would try to find the humor in things, so she could either do standup, become a doctor, or write a book after all she has experienced.”

Humble and initially shy, Evan’s approach to cancer has evolved during his twenty-year survivorship. Early on in his diagnosis, Evan didn’t get the gravity of the situation and some of his concerns were dismissed. At the end of treatment and surgery, Evan was a double ostomate, infertile, and began to build shields around himself. He did not talk about his experiences for ten years. He then began connecting through his camera as a photographer for Fight CRC. It was hard at first for Evan:

“Most of my professional life has been supporting higher education as a photographer in a marketing office. I am fortunate to get a chance to tell the stories of our university’s best students and faculty. I am so used to telling other people’s stories, so I struggled when Fight CRC asked me to tell my own story through photos during their annual Call on Congress. I found out I often look for an exit right before the story or relationship gets too deep. This made me appreciate people I have met who really do own their story and sometimes literally sing it from the mountaintops.”

Evan reframed his life and outlook over time. Not only was he healing through his art but also through movement:

“Often, I express myself through photography. Lately, I have been a little bit more intentional about reconnecting to my body through yoga and martial arts. This is a constant reminder about my energy, so hopefully I can be more aware and listen to how I am connecting or not connecting with people in my life. I am passionate about photography as an art form and a way to connect and share the places and people I love. Embracing the act of photography more as an experience and process, has allowed me to connect vs. my old way of hiding behind a camera. I guess I am more of an extroverted introvert.”

Throughout Evan’s life, his family and heritage have been a driving influence and source of great pride:

“I spent summers growing up with my Mom’s family (grandma’s house). Our grandparents were always generous to ensure we connected with family even though it was on Maui. Before I asked Charlotte to marry me, she had to meet my grandma. Over the years we returned to reconnect and recently we celebrated a family reunion with 100% participation from my entire family!”

Expressing gratitude for his family and culture helped Evan see his support during cancer in a new light:

“One of the most challenging things I ever did was manage our temple’s dance festival, called Obon. It is part Japanese cultural festival, church fundraiser, and Buddhist observance to show gratitude for loved ones who have passed away. Almost exactly 100 days before the festival my mother died. It was unexpected and tragic. She was a temple president and loved in the community. It became an honor to be able to manage the dance festival. It was amazing how many people flew to Virginia to support the temple and mom. At the end of the night we lit candles and wrote the names of our loved ones. It was a reminder that my family was not the only ones mourning mom’s passing. It reminded me of my cancer experience. At your most vulnerable moment, so many friends and family want to help. Most of them not knowing how. Opening yourself and entrusting will reveal a world of grace. Without their compassion, support, and strength, I don’t think I would be here today in gratitude. I am not my former self anymore. But looking back, I appreciate how far I’ve come.”