Iron Dad

Iron Dad Paul with his daughter

by Paul Weigel

I’m Paul Weigel, an eleven-year colon cancer survivor, six-time Ironman triathlete, and dad to a 14-year-old girl.

About eleven years ago, when I was just 43, I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. The tumor was about the size of your fist at the junction of my rectum and my colon, and I was nearly 100% blocked. I almost had to have an airplane flight diverted from Chicago to Seattle because I was so sick and in so much pain.

I had symptoms for years – at least five, so it’s likely that my cancer started when I was in my 30s. At first, my tolerance for different foods changed. I noticed that I no longer could eat pizza because I’d have gastrointestinal issues afterward. Then, I started noticing blood in the toilet every time I went to the bathroom. Finally, as the tumor got larger and larger, I was having difficulty going to the bathroom at all and always felt constipated, and then had a dramatic weight loss…all before I went to a gastrointestinal specialist to see what was going on.

The ironic part was that I had talked with my general physician at least twice about my symptoms, definitely the blood in my stool, but each time the doctor brushed it off as hemorrhoids because at that time I was at the peak of my health, an Ironman triathlete, and young – just 43. My daughter, Natalie, had just had her third birthday.

When I finally had my colonoscopy, the doctor told me we needed to start treatment as soon as possible, which then led to a year of treatment that included oral chemotherapy and radiation, surgery to remove my tumor, and then another six months of chemotherapy afterward.

The first thing I thought of when I was told I had a tumor – the doctor didn’t tell me I had cancer;  just a large mass – was of all of the things I wouldn’t see of her growing up – her first bike ride, boyfriend, prom, her getting married and having kids – and of all those other experiences I’d never have with her. And I knew I had to fight. 

I was pretty stubborn through treatment and pretended I wasn’t like every other cancer patient. Six weeks after having my tumor removed and right after starting chemotherapy, I took part in a sprint triathlon, and I finished a half marathon during my final round of chemo – with my chemo backpack strapped tightly to my back. I also didn’t want others to face the experience I did, and wrote a blog to talk about what I was going through.

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Then six months later, I finished Ironman Canada in Whistler, and through some weird twist of fate, ended up being one of the keynote speakers for the event.

Once that was done, I was desperate to move forward and put that chapter behind me – in a nice little box on a shelf. Cancer and treatment had not only taken its toll on my body, but also my marriage. We separated and divorced almost a year later, and I was just desperate to put it all behind me.

Although I was doing my best to move on, I was still considered a cancer patient – I had spots in places they shouldn’t be, weird reflections during tests, and just different things they wanted to monitor – for nine years. And to be honest, even though I pretended everything was just fine, I always thought I was going to die from this, that cancer was going to take my life away from me, and the time I had to watch my daughter grow up.

Nine years is a long, long time waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Finally, two years ago, I was given my cancer-free “card.” And at the same time, my daughter was getting old enough that she started asking questions about what happened during that time. So I pulled out my blog I started when I was sick. That story is a book I just finished, Iron Dad a Cancer Survivor’s Story of Discovering Strength, Life, and Love Through Fatherhood.

Iron Dad was first called Cancer Blinked – I always tried to hold true that I stared cancer in the eye, and cancer blinked first. But as I started writing, my story became so much more than just the time that I went through treatment. It became a story of my life – how in the world did I do an Ironman six months after chemo? What drove me to dream the impossible and have the incredible come true?

And what it really came down to was that my daughter saved my life. That if I had been diagnosed before she was born, I didn’t really have a lot to live for. I worked hard and played hard, but life felt empty for a lot of different reasons. But once Natalie was born, the first night that I walked the Swedish hospital floors for eight hours overnight with her in my arms, I had something to live and fight for. That I could hope and dream of a new future with her in it.

My story was really designed to explain to Natalie what happened and to have something that I could be proud of…that maybe a handful of people could look at, but not anything that was super big and over the top. But just as I finished the book, the American Cancer Society published a report that said colorectal cancer is increasing at an alarming rate in the US, that colorectal cancer is now the number one leading cause of cancer deaths for men, and the number two leading cause of death for women.

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And as I started talking more with others, I was horrified to know – that in spite of all sorts of new and improved medical treatments, and especially screening tools like Cologuard, the numbers still go up more and more – that doctors still aren’t listening to their patients when they talk about their symptoms, even as the recommended screening age has now been lowered to age 45. That’s unacceptable.

Yes, my survivor story is one of hope and inspiration, but it’s one of caution. Have those difficult conversations with your doctor. When something doesn’t feel right in your body, continue to push and ask questions until you find an answer. And fight. Fight until you can’t fight any longer.


Paul Weigel is a stage III colon cancer survivor, an Ironman triathlete, dad, and the author of Iron Dad, a Cancer Survivor’s Story of Discovering Strength, Life, and Love Through Fatherhood. You can learn more about Paul at IronDadBook.com.

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