Article and photos by Kerry Phelps Dale
Some people spend their whole lives bouncing from one job or cause to another searching for their purpose, their passion. Bill Couzens didn’t need to search. His calling found him and punched him straight in the gut, over and over again.
Bill Couzens has a family photo taken in 1995. It is a typical holiday photo with everyone dressed in Christmas finery.
Babies are on laps and children sit obediently on the floor in front of their parents who stand with hands resting on the shoulders of the seated elderly. But this copy of the iconic family photo is littered with different colored rings drawn around the smiling faces of most of the 29 pictured members of his immediate family. “Those circled in red are dead from cancer, the yellow ones lost a parent to cancer, the white have lost siblings, the purple lost a spouse, and the green one lost two children,” said Bill Couzens. There are 25 circles on the photograph.
Couzens’ mother was the first of his family to succumb to cancer. “We were very close and it was devastating to me—took me about a year to process it.” Later, it was a sister, then a brother, an in-law, a niece, and on and on.
“It doesn’t have to be this way for everybody. There is education and policy we can put in place that actually can stop cancer.” -Bill Couzens
How could Couzens ever question what he is supposed to do with his life, his daughter once wondered. “Dad, you have no choice,” she told him.
Wrestling with his anger and frustration with cancer and its insidious effects on his family and friends, Couzens decided to approach the issue in a positive manner. “There are lots of organizations devoted to research and finding cures, but not so with prevention. More than half of all cancers are preventable—behavioral or environmental. Actually, very few cancers are genetically determined, only between five and 10 percent.”
So, in 2004 Couzens founded Next Generations Choices Foundation, more widely known as Less Cancer, a nonprofit organization with the goal of increasing education and awareness and affecting policy on cancer prevention. Fourteen years later, his homegrown effort has achieved over 100,000 followers on social media, founded National Cancer Prevention Day and initiated the Cancer Prevention Caucus in Congress. On Feb. 2, the fifth annual National Cancer Prevention workshop will take place on Capitol Hill.
“I was motivated by loss, but as a parent, it was my job to give solutions and lead my children,” said Couzens. “And that’s what Less Cancer is about. It doesn’t have to be this way for everybody. There is education and policy we can put in place that actually can stop cancer.”
“I’m most proud that we have policy changes in place for our children that we never had,” said Couzens. “And, the increased knowledge and awareness of ways to prevent cancer. We can thank the internet, the web and social media for that.”
There’s also this tweet Couzens received shortly after bringing extra attention to the devastating Flint, Michigan, water crisis: “#Lesscancer THANK YOU FROM Flint Michigan #flintwatercrisis #flintlead.” “That was really rewarding,” said Couzens of his organization’s successful efforts to help shed light on and initiate action to remove the lead from the town’s drinking water.
“I’m a sales guy. I’m a marketing guy. I’m a communications guy,” said Couzens. “But I do know that content is everything. It doesn’t matter what I say. It really matters what the evidence-based science says and there is so much research that supports our agenda.”
“Bill is so persistent, so tenacious, so demanding he doesn’t even take “yes” for an answer,” said recently retired New York congressman and staunch Less Cancer supporter, Steve Israel when speaking a year ago at the 2016 National Cancer Prevention Day. “He just keeps coming and coming and coming and I’m going to keep serving and serving and serving.”
“When he sets his mind to something, consider it done,” said Helen Wiley, longtime friend and fellow Warrenton Horse Show board member. “He works his buns off. Nonstop.”
In the late 1990s, around the time of the horse show’s 100th Anniversary, Wiley asked Couzens to serve on the Warrenton Horse Show board. One of Couzens’ many successful contributions during his long stretch on the board was helping to create a 2002 event to dedicate the Patsy Cline Pavilion in honor of the country music legend. She had performed at the horse show grounds at the height of her career in the late 1950s. The Patsy Cline singing and look-alike contest drew dozens of women and girls in red lipstick from all over the country to perform various renditions of “Crazy” with an occasional “I Go Out Walking” thrown in. They dressed like Patsy. They tried to sing like Patsy. “One woman actually did sound like her,” recalled Couzens. The crowd loved it, and everyone appreciated Couzens’ tongue-in-cheek nod to the country music superstar. “He makes things fun,” said Wiley, “and he put the
Warrenton Horse Show on the map.”
Before Couzens took on the fight for cancer prevention, he worked for AOL, a couple of horse magazines and owned an accessory publication. Though born and raised in the Detroit area of Michigan, Couzens has lived most of his adult life in various places in the area. When he and his wife had their daughter and son, his family became his priority and they moved to a farm in Fauquier County. “Things at that time were about just making your kids’ lives idyllic. You go hiking and ride ponies, and do all of the things this area offers.”
“He’s a fabulous father,” said friend and Less Cancer board member, KC Graham. “He’s a funny guy, but was serious about those kids. I remember our kids were invited to a party. Bill was asking if I knew them, if they had guns in the house, if they used car seats, if they had a pool,” remembered Graham.
“He ended up driving our kids to the party and checking things out for himself. We call him ‘Captain Safety.’ ”
Couzens spends a lot of time on the road speaking at forums and conferences, or in Washington wooing representatives and senators. When he’s in town, he’s at work writing articles and connecting with his audience through social media. “Every day is a workday,” he said.
Finding balance in his life, keeping stress at bay and practicing what he preaches regarding the tenets of healthy living and cancer prevention require effort and persistence. Eating healthy, exercising, meditating and enjoying his family and friends are an important part of his mission. “It’s a struggle, but the evidence is there. Lifestyle choices can keep disease away.”
One more time with feeling. “Most cancers are preventable.” ML