A Bowel Cancer Warrior On A Mission To Educate
- Tess Greene was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer when she was 38. She experienced constipation, fatigue, pain and changes in her stool before the diagnosis, but she chalked those up to other factors in her life. Now, she’s urging others to pay attention to their bodies and openly discuss bowel health.
- Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but generally we use the term colorectal cancer in the United States. Possible symptoms to look out for can include a change in bowel habits, a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, cramping or belly pain, weakness and fatigue and unintended weight loss.
- Advocating for your health is extremely important. You never know when speaking up about issues with your body can make a world of difference for health outcomes. One of our experts says that there should be a plan for what the doctor is going to do for you after your leave every appointment.
Constipation was nothing new for Tess Greene. But the issue only worsened last October when she also started to feel fatigued and experience pain. But she figured her cramps were caused by her new method of contraception.Read More
She also felt that constipation was “too simple an issue” to bother her doctor about. Now, she knows that’s not the case and wishes she talked to her doctor about the changes she noticed in her stool.
“Because I was constipated, I thought that was happening because of that and because of the stress I was under,” she said.
Greene’s pain only worsened, and she eventually went to the hospital. That’s when she realized she hadn’t been to the toilet in almost three weeks. Still, she never thought cancer was even a possibility.
“I was 38 and I’d always associated bowel cancer with older people,” she said.
Sadly, Greene was told she had a tumor in her bowel after an X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan and colonoscopy. She then underwent an 11-hour operation in December 2021 and eventually received her stage four bowel cancer diagnosis in January. Her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and her peritoneum – a silk-like membrane that lines your inner abdominal wall and covers the organs within your abdomen.
Now, she’s undergoing chemotherapy but wants to take the time to educate others about the very serious disease she’s dealing with.
“I was too dismissive of signs that weren’t normal,” she said. “It’s really about being in tune with your body and getting to know what’s normal for you. Rather than being something that’s laughed off or something that isn’t talked about, it’s really important to be aware of bowel health and pay attention to any abnormal symptoms.”
What Is Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but generally we use the term colorectal cancer – or colon cancer or rectal cancer depending on the location of the cancer – in the United States.
Bowel cancer, like all cancers, presents its own unique challenges for patients on the road to recovery. But Dr. Heather Yeo, a surgical oncologist and colorectal surgeon at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, wants to remind people how far the treatment of this disease has come.
“One of the most exciting things about my job is that we’ve made a lot of progress on treatment options,” Dr. Yeo says in a previous interview with SurvivorNet. “However, patients are still — while they’re living longer, they are still living with colon cancer, and so I think it’s really important that we talk about how some of the things in your life affect you.”
Colorectal (bowel) cancer might not immediately cause symptoms, but these are possible symptoms to look out for:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one
- Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
- Blood in the stool, which might make the stool look dark brown or black
- Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
It is important to note, however, that displaying some of these symptoms does not mean you have colorectal cancer. You could also have colon cancer and not display any of these symptoms. Regardless, it is important to bring up any symptoms to your doctor should they arise.
Dr. Yeo also reminds people of the importance of colorectal screenings such as colonoscopies because most colorectal cancers can be prevented early with screening.
“In the United States, on a national level, colorectal cancer has been decreasing for the last 20 years,” Dr. Yeo says. “And much of that is thought to be directly due to screening for colon cancer.”
Even still, colorectal cancer cases are rising among younger people. And in the United States alone, rates have increased every year from 2011 to 2016 by 2 percent among people younger than 50. Because of this increase, the United States Preventive Services Task Force has recently updated its colorectal cancer screening recommendations to begin at age 45 instead of 50.
“We know that colon cancers can be prevented when polyps are found early,” Dr. Yeo said. “Lowering the screening age helps somewhat with this. But access to care is a real problem.”
And increasing access is crucial to making sure that we don’t see racial disparities within the world of colorectal cancer. Whites and Asians are significantly more likely to be up to date with their colonoscopies than African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
Research suggests that tailoring colon cancer screenings to each person’s individual risk may be beneficial. If you are not yet 45 but have concerns about your risk, talk to your doctor. Ask about your individual risk based on your lifestyle and family history and find out when screenings would be right for you.
The Importance of Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling cancer or worried that you might have it, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer is an incredibly serious disease, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer.
Or if you simply have no idea what’s causing issues with your body, you should still seek professional help. You never know when speaking up about a seemingly unimportant issue can lead to a very important diagnosis – cancer or otherwise.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period.
Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
One thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.