Stage 3 Rectal Cancer at 26

By Brittany Dodson

At just age 26, I was having a quarter-life crisis. I felt my mental and spiritual life was out of whack. But my efforts to get my life on track would uncover a much scarier problem lurking under the surface: cancer.

For several months, maybe even a year, I’d been dealing with abdominal pain and bleeding. Despite trying several at-home remedies, including a change in diet, nothing helped. As I worked to improve my mental and spiritual wellbeing, I decided to visit the doctor to improve my physical well-being, thinking it was hemorrhoids. I had an appointment with Katherine Nguyen, MD, a gastroenterologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, who suggested I have a colonoscopy.

Now you’re probably thinking, “What? A colonoscopy for a 26- year-old? Aren’t those for people in their 50’s?” Why yes, they are. However, I was told that colonoscopies are becoming more common in young adults, so I wasn’t the only one.

On April 5, 2016, I had my first colonoscopy. As I was waking up from the anesthesia, Dr. Nguyen said she found 12 polyps and one large mass. She said the mass could possibly be cancer. Hearing the word “cancer” can be scary and leave you speechless. The thought of what comes with a cancer diagnosis left me with lots of questions and unknowns. When my parents got home, there were lots of tears, questions and concerns, but as I told my mom, I knew that everything was going to be OK. I knew that no matter what stage it was, or the treatment regimen, that God had a plan; it was in his hands and I was ready to fight.

Genetic Testing Revealed a Mutation

The next two weeks were a blur. It went by fast; it was overwhelming and intimidating. There were many doctor appointments, scans, prayer groups, meetings, consultations and too much information to absorb. I underwent genetic testing with Kathryn Mraz, MS, CGC, and as it turns out, I have a gene mutation called Juvenile Polyposis Syndrome (JPS). JPS causes a person to develop polyps frequently. While most of the juvenile polyps are benign, it does increase your risk for cancer. During this time, I found out that the mass was, in fact, stage 3 rectal cancer.  

I met with my team at Memorial Hermann including, radiologist Angel Blanco, MD, oncologist Putao Cen, MD, colon and rectal surgeon David Thompson, MD, and dietitian Erika Jenschke–all of whom got the ball rolling on the treatment plan I was to receive in the next year. In total, I would need six rounds of chemotherapy over four months, a round of radiation, as well as surgery to remove the mass, some of my rectum and the lymph nodes affected by the tumor. Then, I would live with an ileostomy bag for several months while my body healed.

My extended family, church communities, friends and work were all informed of my diagnosis and what was to come.  This was shocking for everyone, but they proved to be the best support system, filling me with encouragement, positive thoughts and prayer. I wouldn’t have been able to come out of it as strong as I did if it weren’t for them.

A few days after Christmas 2016, I got to ring the victory bell signaling the end of my chemo treatments. Ringing the bell was the best Christmas gift that year! It was touching and powerful to celebrate the long year with my family and Memorial Hermann Cancer Center staff surrounding me. I was free! Well, almost.

Learning to Eat Healthier After Cancer

In January of 2017, I had scans done and was considered in remission and cancer free! Yeah! What amazing words to hear! The final step was having my ileostomy removed in February 2017.

The next several months of recovery were a learning process. With all that my body endured, I lost too much weight (15-20 pounds); I was fatigued, had low energy and was in pain. Because of all the treatments and surgeries, I had to learn what I could eat. Now, my body can now only tolerate certain things, like high-fiber foods. I don’t miss the foods I once had because I know what happens if I do have them and it’s not fun. Eating healthier has taught me different ways to make food and be creative. To continue to be in remission, I have scans completed once a year, as well as having an endoscopy and colonoscopy done just to be sure. No, it’s not fun. It can be very nerve-wracking, but I do this to stay healthy.

Finding a Way to Live Again

I also had some emotional recovering to do. I found myself depressed and full of anxiety. My conclusion: during my cancer journey, I was only able to focus on healing my physical body with no time to focus on the emotional/mental side of everything. I discussed this with my doctors and they understood. They gave me medicine and advice on how to boost my morale. My family and friends were accepting and supportive during this time and helped me find a way to live again. I took recovery one day at a time as I did during treatments, and eventually, I got to where I am today: stronger, healthier, full of life, energy, joy and hope.

I can credit many things with helping me fight cancer and beat it: my faith, family, friends, church and work communities, also known as #BrittanysButterflies. They kept me grounded and surrounded with so much support and love. I used Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” – as words to remind me to stay strong and that I was NOT in the fight alone. Staying positive, having laughter and listening to music were therapeutic for me and kept my mind focused on pushing through the process of healing to see the happy things in life. Lastly, my incredible team of doctors at Memorial Hermann gave it to us straight, but also gave us encouragement and hope for my future.

Proud to be a Survivor

I know this is just the beginning of my story. I am proud to be a survivor, as not everyone will have the chance. I tell my story for them and for those currently fighting. I am working to be more open with what I went through and use my story to advocate for cancer screening. I hope to write it all down in a book one day and speak with more cancer survivors in the future. Here’s what I’d tell them: It’s OK to have the questions, the anxiety and worry, but remember to have hope and trust. It can be a tough journey. The scars (both physical and mental), the unknowns and the waiting, the scans and procedures are the hardest parts; but all of it is worth it to be cancer free.  

For those not battling cancer, here is the truth: if you think something isn’t right in your body, get it checked out, don’t wait. It’ll help in the long run and potentially save your life!

The recommended age for cancer screenings has been lowered to 45. Learn more about colorectal cancer screenings and treatments here

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Ali Vise