"J" is a resident of Vancouver, Canada, who was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer at age 32. A decade later, she shares her journey. In this column, real patients share their honest experiences working with healthcare teams—providing clinicians with unique insights from the people they treat.
Colon cancer is on the rise among young adults. Unfortunately, with screenings often reserved for the over-50 crowd, unsuspecting younger patients may be in the dark for too long, according to the US Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Recently, we spoke to a patient, “J.” from Vancouver, Canada, who was diagnosed at age 32 with stage 3 colon cancer (T3N1c). Now 42, she reflected on her experience. (Her comments have been lightly edited for clarity.)
What were your circumstances when you were diagnosed?
“I had just found out I was in the early stages of pregnancy, so I was pretty excited. One afternoon, I was at home and feeling gassy, but when I passed it, there was some blood, so I went to the emergency room. They were unable to find anything. I went back for a flex sigmoidoscopy a few days later, and that’s when they found a tumor about 8 inches long.”
Do you wish your doctor would have done anything differently in sharing your diagnosis with you?
“No, at my time of diagnosis, we were working with limited information, so we handled it in small steps. It was all I could manage at the time. Other than knowing I had some sort of bowel or colon cancer, we only fully understood what I was dealing with after I had surgery and they were able to test the tumor."
J. shared that her healthcare team addressed her concerns to the best of their abilities, but she believes she was in a daze through most of her diagnosis. She credits the medical system in Canada for the lower levels of stress she had during a health crisis than others may experience.
"Everyone I encountered met me with compassion."
"Although healthcare providers deal with this every day, I don't. So I appreciated that they spoke to me with that understanding."
— J., a patient with colon cancer
J. had a lower-bowel resection followed by 12 rounds of chemotherapy. She couldn’t recall all of her medications but reported mild nausea. The worst side effect was neuropathy in her hands and feet. She explained that “that pain seemed to last the longest after chemotherapy ended.”
Getting regular feedback from her healthcare team, and having frequent appointments between chemo and blood work, helped her feel in control.
"I felt like if I wasn't constantly talking to a doctor or booking an appointment with a specialist, I was wasting time.”
Overall, J. remembers feeling that her doctor listened during appointments. She appreciated “the effort the doctors put into being calm and present during my meetings with them.” Most of the time, she felt she was “in it together” with her providers, although she generally deferred to their expertise and trusted their professional advice.
"I wanted information often because it was the only thing I could do to keep my mind from wandering to the worst-case scenario. "
— J., a patient with colon cancer
The recovery process for J. included reading, counseling, and, ultimately, significant life changes.
“I was given access to counseling services, both from the cancer agency and those I found on my own. I was encouraged to seek them out, so I did. Over the years, I also attended group therapy. I read many books on the subject of trauma. The two most important were The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, and The Myth of Normal, by Gabor Maté, MD.
"Currently, I teach pilates and own a meditation studio. I'm absolutely in love with what I do for work. Before cancer, I was a mortgage broker, and my job was very stressful and not enjoyable. After dealing with cancer and learning how stress and trauma can affect physical and mental health, I moved away from the finance industry into something that helps others feel great!”