June 19th, 2017
| Survivor: Colorectal (Bowel) Cancer
I was 27 when I first noticed blood in my stool. After speaking to several friends who all assured me the same thing had happened to them, I let it go.
Then my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was 58. Still seeing blood in my stool on occasion, I made an appointment with a gastroenterologist who performed a sigmoidoscopy (a procedure used to see inside the sigmoid colon and rectum). He said the blood was due to hemorrhoids.
I was so relieved when he told me I was too young to worry about colon cancer.
His parting advice was to get checked starting in my 40's, since I had a family history. For the next eight years I continued to believe the blood was from hemorrhoids. I had no other symptoms. I started training daily for 5k's and 10k's, hoping to eventually work my way up to the NYC Marathon. I was convinced my persistent fatigue was caused by my long hours at work and the gym and family time.
Then one day, while running down the stairs to catch my train, I collapsed.
It took a few minutes and several kind strangers to get me back on my feet again. Somehow I managed to drive myself home and promptly went straight to bed where I spent the next three days with a fever, cold sweats, and stomach cramps so severe, it felt as if I had eaten glass. I went to my primary care physician who said I most likely had the flu.
A week passed. The fever broke but the cramps remained. I went to my gynecologist thinking they were possibly just worse than normal cramps. She told me my ovaries were beautiful but it looked as if I had a wind tunnel in my intestines. She directed me to see a gastroenterologist immediately. I made my appointment and began treating the pain with heating pads, Gas X, and immodium for my now constant diarrhea, which I chalked up to nerves.
I met with my new gastroenterologist in May of 2011. After he ran some tests and a brief health history intake, he diagnosed me with IBS and recommended dietary changes. He also informed me that a test showed a hematoma (blood clot) on my liver. He told me not to worry because they were almost always benign. He suggested I use peppermint oil, that a few of his patients had found some relief with it. I went home and Googled an entire new diet plan for IBS.
It was now the beginning of July. The pain had worsened; off to another doctor I went. This time to another General Practitioner. She told me my liver enzyme levels were extraordinarily high. I brought this information to my gastroenterologist who asked about alcohol consumption or if I'd been taking aspirin regularly
I asked about a colonoscopy. He said I was too young and, most likely, my insurance wouldn't cover it.
My inner voice told me to push. Something was wrong. I could feel it. Even if I had to pay out of pocket, I told him to schedule the colonoscopy. I was given an appointment for July 18th.
I arrived as prepared as one can be for this sort of thing. I joked with the anesthesiologist as I fell under the spell of the drugs. I woke up in recovery and waited to get the okay to leave. The doctor came in and pulled the curtain behind him. "We found something," he said. "There is a mass in your colon, we took a piece for a biopsy but we scheduled a CT scan for tomorrow to get a full picture of what's going on." I was stunned but assumed it was benign. I spent the rest of the day calling family and friends who all assured me it was nothing. "Kathleen," they said, "you're 35."
When I arrived for my CT scan, the technician was all smiles. He told me I was far too young to be dealing with this and he was sure I'd do just fine. His face was solemn when he escorted me out of the room. He told me to "take care of myself" as I walked out the door.
I was walking out of the diagnostic center when I received a call from my doctor's assistant. He wanted to go over the results so I needed to get to his office now. I was there in no time. The assistant directed me to his personal office when he walked in and closed the door. He looked like he'd been crying.
He sat down and said, "This isn't good."
My body began to get very hot. He said, "The scan shows a 7cm tumor in your colon and several lesions on your liver." I stared at him, unable to process what he was telling me. "Tumor? Do I have cancer? Are you telling me I have cancer?" He said yes and followed up with words I couldn't, in that moment, comprehend.
Everything went blank. I couldn't hear, I couldn't move.
All I felt was heat radiating throughout my body, and then I went numb.
Colon cancer is extremely treatable when caught early. Mine, unfortunately, was not. Aside from spreading to my liver, it eventually metastasized to both lungs. I went through almost four years of chemotherapy and seven surgeries to remove the cancer from my body. I am now two years cancer free. I am one of the very lucky ones. One of the greatest obstacles facing young adults with cancer is that too often our symptoms are dismissed until it reaches the late stages; making it much more difficult to treat.
Lately, as I finally begin to process all that has occurred in the last six years, my mind wanders to 2007 when I first began showing symptoms. Had that first GI ordered a colonoscopy, had he not bought into the idea of being 'too young' and ignored the symptoms, how might my life be different? Could it have been caught before it turned into cancer? Before it metastasized? Before turning everything and everyone in my life upside?
While we can't live our lives in the 'what if's,' we can help to ensure no other young adult is told they are 'too young'.
We must share our stories and debunk the myth that cancer only affects older people.
Get regular checkups and, more importantly, listen to your body! If you're feeling off, keep pushing until you get an answer. I say this with the hope that, upon reading it, maybe even one person take action that will mean never having to hear the words: "You have cancer" and wonder if there was more they could have/should have done.
Do you have any what-ifs about your cancer journey? Tell us in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of the author.
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