Facing a Colon Cancer Diagnosis
- Ashley Teague, 30, didn’t think much of her weight loss in 2019. But when she was down 25 pounds a year later and started having pain, diarrhea and eventually bloody stools, she knew something was wrong. Initially, doctors thought she had irritable bowel syndrome, but it turned out to be a baseball-sized tumor in her colon.
- Teague also later discovered that she had Lynch syndrome. This genetic condition can be passed down from either parent, and, if you have it, you have up to an 80 percent chance of developing colon cancer in your lifetime.
- The term colorectal cancer is used to describe cancers that begin in the colon or the rectum – so some people just use the term colon cancer if that’s where the disease began.
- Colorectal cancer screenings have made a big difference in colorectal cancer prevention. But with colorectal cancer cases in younger people on the rise, the recommended age for beginning screening has been moved from 50 to 45.
Teague had lost her close friend and an uncle the year prior, and she had gained some weight during that difficult time. So, when the mother of two started losing weight, Teague thought it might actually be a good thing despite not making any changes to her diet or exercise routine.Read More
But when she was down 25 pounds a year later, Teague “knew deep down” something was wrong. She even developed a severe pain in her side and suffered from consistent, daily diarrhea.
But when Teague first went to her doctor, the nurse practitioner dismissed her weight loss, pain and diarrhea as irritable bowel syndrome and gave her medication. Then, when she returned with a new symptom – bloody stool – Teague said her colonoscopy request was denied because of her age and the fact that her blood work came back normal.
Teague even told her care team that her mother, a kidney and breast cancer survivor, has Lynch syndrome. This genetic condition can be passed down from either parent, and, if you have it, you have up to an 80 percent chance of developing colon cancer in your lifetime.
But since a CT scan hadn’t detected any problems, her clinicians simply told her to “lay off spicy food” and change her diet. Overall, it took six to seven months of advocating for herself for Teague to be granted a colonoscopy. When she was finally granted a colonoscopy after learning that her father had recently had cancerous polyps removed from his colon, doctors found a tumor in her colon the size of a baseball.
For treatment, she had an operation to remove more than 4.5 feet of her 5-foot colon and join what was left with her small intestine. Following surgery, Teague also underwent testing that confirmed that she did, in fact, have Lynch syndrome. Now, she’s considering a hysterectomy since Lynch syndrome also puts her at high risk of uterine cancer.
Looking back on her cancer journey, she thinks her colon could have been spared if doctors tested her for Lynch syndrome earlier and subsequently found her cancer faster. But she’s grateful to be doing well now and wants people to pay attention to any health changes and speak up for themselves when their concerns aren’t being addressed.
“Your body gives you signs before it shuts down,” Teague said. “So, listen to it.”
Understanding Colorectal Cancer
The term colorectal cancer is used to describe cancers that begin in the colon or the rectum – so some people just use the term colon cancer if that’s where the disease began. The cancer develops when abnormal lumps called polyps grow in the colon or rectum. It takes up to 10 years for a colon polyp to actually become cancer, according to SurvivorNet experts.
Colorectal 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.”
Dr. Yeo also emphasizes the importance of colorectal cancer 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.
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
Colon cancer might not immediately cause symptoms, but there are signs to look out for.
Below are possible symptoms:
- 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.