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Let symptoms – not age – influence treatment

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; the latest comes from cancer survivor Danielle Ripley-Burgess.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

A diagnosis of stage III colon cancer at age 17 probably sounds like a pretty tough blow and not lucky at all. Not to mention a second diagnosis of stage I colon cancer at age 25 and subsequent surgeries and hospital stays to combat my genetic disease, Lynch Syndrome.

Yet despite the extensive medical record over the past decade, I still consider myself extremely lucky when compared to other survivors.

You see, I’m not alone in my fight. Although colon and rectal cancer most often appear in those over age 50, it can happen in young people. In fact, it is happening - and those of us diagnosed under age 50 make up the fastest growing demographic to be diagnosed.

Screening recommendations for colon cancer don’t typically apply for those of us still washing our faces with acne cream, going prom-dress shopping or planning our weddings. But when we walk into a doctor’s office with symptoms like severe abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and rectal bleeding, we need to be taken seriously.

A fellow survivor named Meaghan, stage I colon cancer at age 26, initially assumed her bleeding and pain came from past pregnancies. The emergency room staff concurred and offered her pain pills and suggested a high-fiber diet. Not until she returned to urgent care in extreme pain did a CT scan discover her tumor. Another friend, Melissa, knew that “college stress” couldn’t be the only cause of her pain and blood in the stool. Melissa fought tooth-and-nail for a referral, yet doctors wouldn’t send her to a specialist. Luckily, her mom called a gastroenterologist who had a last-minute cancellation. That appointment discovered her stage III rectal cancer at age 20 and saved her life.

I consider myself lucky because unlike many survivors also diagnosed “too young,” I never got the runaround from physicians. I was never told I had irritable bowel syndrome, prescribed antidepressants, instructed to simply change my diet or denied medical exams.

My gastroenterologist took aggressive steps and sent my 17-year-old behind straight into a colonoscopy the day he learned of my bleeding. I spent only minutes in his office but as soon as the stool test detected blood, he didn’t cut corners. My dad’s insistence on him treating me as if I were his teenage daughter led to the discovery of my tumor just days after the appointment. I was treated based on my symptoms - and not my age.

The hands-on approach from every member of my medical team not only saved my life from colon cancer twice, but it set me up for survivorship. Now, I have a long life ahead of me.

No, colon cancer doesn’t often occur in teenagers. But it can. And thankfully, my symptoms influenced my doctors’ recommendations and treatment - not my age.

Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, is director of communication for advocacy organization Fight Colorectal Cancer. She was Miss October in the 2009 Colondar, an educational calendar of young colon cancer survivors that raises awareness of colorectal cancer. She writes about the topic of cancer as a blogger for Huffington Post and on her blog, Semicolon Stories. Last Friday, she was among a group of colon cancer survivors that NBC's TODAY show interviewed for a segment about Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

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