Welcome to Conversations with Cancer Survivors, a Q&A series aimed at finding new ways to teach people how to detect cancer early and ways to navigate the doctor-patient experience from those who have been through the process themselves. Neil Feldman is a podiatrist and melanoma survivor, and he talked recently with 15-40 Connection’s Carl Setterlund.
CARL: Neil, thanks for doing this. You joined the 15-40 Connection family this year as one of our cancer survivor advocates and will actually be running the Boston Marathon for Team 15-40 in 2019. Why don’t you share a little bit more about your background? I know you’re also a podiatrist.
NEIL: Well, I grew up in Sharon, Mass., and went to UMass-Amherst, so I’ve been mostly local. Then I went to podiatry school in Chicago, did my residency in California – I was in the Bay Area for three years – spent a year in D.C. and then came back to Massachusetts in 2000.
CARL: And I know one of your hobbies that really defines you is running, and we’re excited that you’ll be representing us at next year’s Boston Marathon. What makes you so passionate about running?
NEIL: I met a 70-year-old lady as a patient in 2000 and she was going out to do an Ironman (Triathlon) in Australia and I was just so blown away by that. It sort of was this thing on my radar that redefined how I want to get older. We moved back to Massachusetts and I did a short triathlon in Sharon, and I was like, you know what, I’m going to do an Ironman, this is just awesome. The next year, I did my first ever Boston Marathon and later that year I did an Ironman. I’ve been on that path ever since and I really haven’t strayed from it. I’ve done seven Ironmans, 12 Boston Marathons, a bunch of other marathons, four 100-milers and several 50-milers. I like to run, as you can tell! In doing so, my practice in podiatry has been a little more geared towards athletes, triathletes, runners, essentially just trying to get people to realize their potential in terms of movement. It’s been really good. I get to work with like-minded people and help people make a difference in their own lives and just get better and healthier and feel better about themselves, which is extremely rewarding.
CARL: I have to imagine, as a doctor and someone who does a lot of long-distance running, that you’re pretty healthy. What is your advice to someone who thinks that, because they live a healthy lifestyle, they can’t get cancer?
NEIL: I was absolutely the picture of health – I am the picture of health. I eat well, I exercise, I take care of myself, and even use sunscreen. The fact is, I’ve spent many years out in the sun biking and running, and my ears are bigger and my hairline is less and it just exposed certain areas. For me, skin cancer was a possibility, but not that I really thought about it at all. My first year in practice, I was down in Virginia and my boss, I found out at 45 or 46 he had metastatic lung cancer, and he was the picture of health as well. He never smoked, he was fit, he was active. That’s always been on my radar that, wow, if it can happen to this guy it can happen to anybody. Nobody’s invincible. You just have to be diligent. Risk factors or not, if you want to live a long, healthy life, you should commit yourself to checking for early signs or symptoms of anything.
CARL: As someone who is both a melanoma survivor and someone who understands the medical system in the United States, you’ve got a good background to coach people on how they can advocate for themselves to gain more control over their health outcomes? What’s your advice on that topic?
NEIL: You have to be proactive. Nobody should care more about your health than yourself. If there’s something that I’m not getting from my doctor, then I need to ask, and if the question isn’t answered, then ask again. Be pushy. If you feel like something’s not right, then you’ve got to get that checked out. If you have specific concerns, then they should be addressed and you should have enough trust and faith in your doctor that they are addressing them in a manner that’s satisfying to you. I’m fortunate, I have an amazing primary care doctor and just a great group of people around me that just listen and that’s the most important thing. You just want somebody who’s going to listen to you and not be dismissive of anything.
CARL: Lastly, if you could be any superhero, who would you want to be?
NEIL: That’s an easy one: Superman. No doubt. I’ve always wanted to fly. I’ve had a number of flying dreams and I always wake up happy.
CARL: Sounds like you, except for the flying part! Neil, thanks for sharing your insights on some important topics and for all your involvement helping us spread the word about 15-40 Connection!
This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Early detection can make a lifesaving difference. Learn more about how to identify and act on cancer symptoms with our 3 Steps Detect education.