Since February 8, Kristine has been on a physical and emotional rollercoaster that she would give anything to have avoided.
That’s when the 38-year-old mother of three young children from Mt Laurel, N.J. had a colonoscopy performed. She’d seen bright-red blood in her stool, but for several months written it off as a case of persistent hemorrhoids like she’d experienced during each of her three pregnancies.
It took one of those late-night “what if it is more?” conversations we all have with ourselves to jar her into action.
The gastroenterologist found a mass in her colon near her rectum.
“He basically told me everything in the first two minutes,” she says. “Based on his experience, he said it looks like cancer and that I would need surgery and probably chemotherapy.”
Kristine immediately thought about her kids – her two-year-old son and daughters just eight and five. What would their lives be like if she wasn’t there?, she thought. It’s a gut-wrenching thought that most parents only have in fleeting, abstract ways. For Kristine, it was suddenly, painfully real. Best to push it out of her mind. Best to focus on what needed to be done.
Two days later the pathology report confirmed that she had colon cancer. Kristine had a lot to do. Blood work. A CT scan, followed by an MRI to check if the cancer had spread to her liver.
Kristine and her husband met with Jefferson surgeon Scott D. Goldstein, MD, FACS, director of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery. It was February 16. Her surgery was eight days later on Friday, February 24. Dr. Goldstein was able to remove the affected part of her colon in a laparoscopic operation.
The minimally invasive surgery went well, and Kristine was able to go home the following Monday. Unfortunately, her journey as a cancer patient didn’t end there. “The pathology wasn’t as good as we had hoped,” she says. “They found cancer in four lymph nodes.”
Kristine needed chemotherapy. She met oncologist Edith Mitchell, MD, FACP, program leader of gastrointestinal oncology at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson. Kristine was ready to do whatever she needs to to fight the cancer.
“Most of the women in my family are in their 90s,” she says. “I don’t really want to think I will still be OK in five years; I want to know I will be good in 60 years. Five years from now my little guy will be seven… that’s too little.”
“Some days I can talk about it fine, other days I might not be able to get the words out.”
Sometimes Kristine beats herself up with what-ifs. What if she’d gotten the colonoscopy sooner? What if instead of having a mammogram early – at 35 – she’d had a colonoscopy or had both? What if …?
Deep down she knows the what-ifs don’t really matter, can’t matter.
She is doing what she needs to do so she can be here to watch her kids grow up, go to proms, graduate from school, get married and have kids of their own.
Screening colonoscopies are recommended starting at age 50, but most people under that age – and most doctors – tend not to think about colorectal cancer, even if they have symptoms. While the overall number of colorectal cancer cases has dropped over the last 10 years, there has been an uptick in the disease among younger people.
“We’re seeing a growing trend of more colorectal cancer patients under 50, some even under 40,” said Dr. Goldstein. “The problem is the younger they are, the more likely they are to ignore symptoms of more advanced stages of the disease. Who thinks they have colon cancer at 40, 35 or even 25?”
Kristine says that outlook has to change. “If you have any weird symptoms don’t explain it away, get a colonoscopy. The colonoscopy was easy, that’s no big deal.”
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