My sister, Emma, died of stage IV colon cancer in June 2010. Had she been diagnosed when her symptoms first started to appear—two years before seeking medical help—doctors believe her cancer would have been caught early, and she would have likely gone into remission after some treatment. Instead, she had more than a foot of her colon removed, a hysterectomy at age 40, and endured five years of every type of radiation and chemotherapy possible.
All because Emma ignored her symptoms: frequently burping up a rotten smell, chronic fatigue, diarrhea, blood in her stool, a swollen stomach, and painful cramping. (Here are 12 subtle symptoms you should never ever ignore.)
But it's easy to see why she looked the other way. All of these symptoms could be indicators of many other illnesses, big or small. Wouldn't most of us ignore a little increase in belching and diarrhea, assuming we just overate or have food sensitivities? We might attribute fatigue to a bad night's sleep and treat it with some coffee. We could assume PMS is causing the bloating and cramping, and maybe, like my sister, be too embarrassed to acknowledge the blood each time we went to the bathroom. (Get the latest health tips sent straight to your inbox with our FREE newsletters.)
It was Spring 2005 when our family first became aware of Emma's symptoms. She was on a run with our other sister, Vivian, and as they jogged, Emma got an unstoppable urge to go to the bathroom. They quickly ducked into a nearby fast-food restaurant, and when Emma came out of the restroom the back of her pants was soaked in blood. There was no hiding it anymore, and she confessed to Vivian that this had been happening for a year. (Here are 7 things your poop says about your health.)
During that year, Emma had visited two local clinics because she didn't have health insurance, and therefore couldn't afford an appointment with a gastrointestinal specialist. Neither doctor sent her for a colonoscopy, but both diagnosed her with colitis instead. Colitis is the inflammation of the inner lining of the colon, and is accompanied by many of the same symptoms as colon cancer (ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, food poisoning, and diverticulosis also have similar symptoms). The bleeding should have been a red flag for the doctors, and she should have gotten a colonoscopy, but she didn't. She was scared there was something really wrong with her, but it was that same fear that kept her from doing something more about it. And having two doctors draw the same conclusion put her at ease.
But after the jogging incident, Emma's other symptoms became more apparent, too. The bloating she experienced wasn't the same as PMS-type bloating anymore. Her stomach was large and hard, mirroring an early pregnancy. She would fall sleep anywhere, and admitted to dozing off in her car while she waited in the bank drive-thru line. Vivian even recalls Emma falling asleep mid-conversation at a hair salon one time. And because my house was closer to her work than her own, Emma would take daily midday naps in my bed. At the time, I wanted to believe she was just exhausted like most overworked single mothers. She would later use my room to secretly recover from chemotherapy so that her children wouldn't see the nasty effects it sometimes had on her.
Emma finally convinced her employer to add her to the practice's health insurance plan so that she could get the $3,000 colonoscopy she knew she desperately needed.
She had the test done on a Tuesday, and by Thursday the GI doc called with her results: stage 4 colon cancer. She had the emergency hysterectomy and colectomy on Friday, and was given 6 months to live.
After her cancer diagnosis, Emma educated herself on foods and lifestyle changes in an attempt to beat the odds, and her efforts helped her live 5 years past expectancy. She ate all organic foods, lots of spinach, green shakes for breakfast every morning, and limited meat and caffeine. (Your burger’s not doing you any favors; 10 reasons to stop eating red meat.) She eliminated popcorn and foods with seeds from her diet, since they are difficult for the colon to process. Cancer feeds off of sugar, so sweets were out, too. She walked everywhere, all the time. Even if she was exhausted, she pushed herself to stay active.
Her GI specialist suggested that her family members get preventive colonoscopies every 3 years. I'm 33 years old and have already had four. I also began incorporating a lot more greens into my diet and limiting my red meat intake. I try to avoid sweets and took up yoga and spinning.
Emma was tested for a genetic predisposition to colon cancer called Lynch Syndrome: 3 percent of people with colon cancer have it, and 50 percent of their family members will, too (Never heard of it? Here are 5 more cancers we’re guessing are also new to you.) Luckily, Emma was not one of them. Still, I sometimes find myself feeling paranoid about every little itch and cramp. At times it's been nothing, while other times I've had my own (non-cancer-related) medical scares. Either way, I never regret my doctor's visits because I always walk out with the treatment I need or peace of mind. Sometimes I wonder if my doctors and their nurses think I'm a hypochondriac, but then I remind myself how important it is to be aware of what is going on inside my body.
My sister would still be alive if she hadn't ignored her symptoms. That has been one of the hardest parts: knowing that her death could have been prevented. But through healthy lifestyle changes and willpower, Emma was able to stretch her expected last 6 months into 5 years. In those 5 years, I watched the person closest to me fight for her life while dying right in front of me at the same time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, colon cancer is the second-leading cancer killer in the United States of both women and men, but if treated early enough it can be cured.