Off the Clock: As a survivor, Evan Cantwell volunteers for colorectal cancer awareness


Life is much more than time spent on the clock. In this series, we highlight the unique hobbies and volunteer activities of Mason's talented faculty and staff.

Evan Cantwell holds his camera at a Fight Colorectal Cancer event in Washington, D.C.
Evan Cantwell volunteers with Fight Colorectal Cancer. Photo by Brian Threlkeld

As a photographer in Creative Services at George Mason University, Evan Cantwell spends his time at work capturing moments across the university. And he’s been doing it for quite a while.

“I started working at Mason in the previous century, when we still used chemistry to process our university image collection in black and white,” Cantwell said. The university has grown a lot since 1999, and Cantwell now collaborates with teams across the Office of University Branding, including writers, editors, social media specialists, videographers, and students to tell the Mason story.

Beyond the technology used in his work, something else was drastically different about Cantwell’s life when he first started working at Mason. He was undergoing chemotherapy and hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat early onset colorectal cancer. He was in his early twenties.

Cantwell is now a 25-year survivor of the disease, having been cancer-free since he underwent treatment in 1999. Since then, he has found ways to connect with other survivors and help spread awareness of colorectal cancer, which is now affecting more and more young people in the United States.

How did you first get started with this volunteer activity? 

It was challenging to connect with other survivors before the existence of social media, so I went to group therapy opportunities, but could never relate since I was so much younger than everyone. Over a decade later, when I was exploring therapy again and dealing with a lot of health issues, I ended up at a surf camp for young cancer survivors, which inspired me to explore patient advocacy.

I was selected to be one of the first Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC) ambassadors in 2016. We participated in public service announcement videos shown in Times Square and the NASDAQ marquee screen, posed for the Fight CRC magazine, Beyond Blue, and attended an ambassador retreat. We raised awareness and amplified Fight CRC’s mission by lobbying Congress in March for Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. I took a break during COVID but was excited to join Fight CRC on Capitol Hill again this year.

Three people stand together with their arms raised in front of thousands of blue flags on the National Mall in front of the U.S. Capitol
Cantwell lends his photography skills to his volunteer work raising awareness for colorectal cancer. This March, volunteers with Fight Colorectal Cancer participated in a Call on Congress and installed flags and photo exhibits on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding 

What is involved in this volunteer work, and what is the time commitment?

Last fall, I volunteered to photograph the new Fight CRC ambassador class, which includes survivors, caregivers who have lost loved ones, and those undergoing treatment. We met in Missouri during ambassador training camp, and the weekend was full of emotion as they shared their stories.

No one knows why colorectal cancer is now the leading killer of young men ages 20–49, and the second deadliest among young women. This March, families, caregivers, survivors, doctors, and other advocates came together to plant 27,400 blue flags on the National Mall. In 2030, it’s estimated that 27,400 young Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Fight CRC partners with government agencies to identify and fund research and policies to bridge research and advocacy efforts, including early onset research.

Evan Cantwell and a fellow volunteer on the National Mall in front of the photo exhibit for colorectal cancer awareness and the U.S. Capitol
Evan Cantwell (right) and fellow survivor Alecia Mandal (left) at the Fight CRC photo exhibit on the National Mall. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

What has been the most meaningful or memorable experience you’ve had in this volunteer work?

Over the years, I have met the most amazing and kind people from around the country. The type of people who really restore your faith. I would be remiss not to mention that some of those people have died. I am so grateful that I had a chance to meet them and to work with them when they were advocating not just for themselves, but for all of us.

What lessons have you learned through this experience?

I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I think I am. Especially when I can figure out when to ask for help. Choosing not to do it alone will open up so many pathways to healing both body and mind.

Also, it is so important to connect with your family about health. Know your body. You will be the only one in this life to take care of it. Ensure you spend more time researching a second opinion than researching a hair stylist, and to take full responsibility for your health.

If you are sure there is something wrong with your body, and a health care professional doesn’t think so, you can say, “No, this is not acceptable,” and advocate for your health by getting a second opinion. It might save your life—it saved mine.

Volunteers and advocates for colorectal cancer awareness gather on Capitol Hill
Volunteers and advocates for colorectal cancer awareness gather on Capitol Hill. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

What is one thing you want people to know about awareness and prevention of colorectal cancer?

Colonoscopies save lives. There are new tools for screening, and you should consult with a doctor regarding the best screening for you. Know your risk factors; learn about your family history, considering grandparents and first-degree relatives, or if you have Lynch syndrome. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) lowered the recommended screening age for colorectal cancer in adults with average risk from age 50 to age 45. Don’t wait for symptoms to show up; get the recommended preventive screening. 

What else do you enjoy doing in your spare time? 

You can find me outdoors—hiking, exploring nature, and mountain biking. I also enjoy doing yoga and taking care of our rescue dog, Molly, with my wife. I’m hoping to explore the American west (when it’s not hot).