By Wendy Dewey
In April 2010, I was diagnosed with stage 3B rectal cancer. This diagnosis came as a big surprise to me as well as my doctors, family and friends. The recommendation for colorectal cancer screening begins starting at age 50. So when I started having symptoms for this disease at age 36, the possibility that it may be colorectal cancer, at first, was at the bottom of my list.
My symptoms started in December 2009. John and I had taken a road trip down to visit my family in Florida. While I was there, I noticed that I had become constipated. I associated this with being in a car for long periods of time and not eating well while traveling. This persisted on and off even after we came back from Florida.
Somewhere between January and February 2010, I started noticing some blood in my stool. Since nine out of 10 people who are diagnosed are over the age of 50, I thought it could be anything but colorectal cancer. This concerned me, but I was still having constipation, so I assumed I had possibly done some internal damage that was causing this occasional bleeding.
At the beginning of March, I noticed something scary: I was losing weight. It’s scary to lose weight when you are not trying to do so, especially since this is one of the first things we often ask our new patients coming in with a new diagnosis of several cancers. It was even scarier when other people start to notice. Also during this time, I also noticed I was tired a lot more than usual. Usually, if I was tired, I could ingest some sugar or caffeine and catch a second wind. Nope. At that time, if I was tired, I didn’t bounce back like I normally was able to do.
So after a few months of dealing with these symptoms, I decided I really needed to see a doctor. I went to see a gastroenterologist here at Rush in March 2010. Thankfully, he listened to my symptoms and had me schedule a sigmoidoscopy. I was then diagnosed with rectal cancer. I was then seen by the GI Comprehensive Clinic after more testing (CEA blood level, CT scans, upper endoscopy, colonoscopy, and lower endoscopic ultrasound) was done to complete the staging of T3N1M0.
At the time of my diagnosis, it was not thought of as common to find colorectal cancer in a 36-year-old female. According to an article posted by the American Cancer Society, the rates of new colorectal cancer diagnoses have been falling in the United States for people ages 50 and older. But for people under 50, for whom no routine screening is recommended, rates seem to be increasing significantly. I can attest to this personally, since after my diagnosis I have known of other people under age 50 (one a close childhood friend, along with family of friends or friends of friends) who were diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Sadly, some were diagnosed too late and lost their battle to this disease.
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center conducted a study using data collected from 1975 through 2010. From that data, they predict that by 2030 the occurrence rates among people ages 20 to 34 will increase by 90 percent for colon cancer and by 124.2 percent for rectal cancer. Among people ages 35 to 49, they predict the incidence rates will increase by 27.7 percent for colon cancer and by 46 percent for rectal cancer.
Don’t ignore the symptoms
I continue to try to raise more awareness about colorectal cancer. Since the time of my diagnosis, I have noticed on the media, I hear a lot about risks and symptoms for lung cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer and cervical cancer. I rarely hear about colorectal cancer in the media. Even when a celebrity dies from this disease, it seems to be overlooked. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women, and the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women combined in the United States. The earlier it is found, the better chance of being cured. The scary part is once symptoms occur, it is usually at later stage.
Overall, I was lucky. I was able to get through most of this without any major complications. Thankfully, I was treated here at Rush and was well taken care of by all.
Please, if you are age of 50 or older, go for your colonoscopy for screening. If you are under the age of 50 and having symptoms, please see your doctor. If your doctor is not further exploring your symptoms or concerns, seek a second opinion. All too often, I’ve heard of young patients either ignoring their symptoms or their health care provider ignoring their symptoms for too long.
If you are afraid of having a colonoscopy, keep in mind, I’ve had six and am still alive! If you think it’s inconvenient, think about how less convenient it could be to go for radiation, surgery and chemotherapy.
Also, talk to your family about any family history and encourage others to discuss this disease to help break the silent stigma around it. The more people know about this disease, the better chance it can be found earlier.
You can’t die from embarrassment, but cancer can kill you. When in doubt, get checked out!
Wendy Dewey, RN, BSN, OCN, is a bone marrow transplant coordinator at Rush University Medical Center.