When Jennifer Waller started experiencing some stomach pain and unexplained weight loss, she figured the symptoms could be pointing to something like inflammatory bowel disease. She felt off, sure, but as a nurse who seemed to be in relatively good health, she figured it wasn't anything to seriously worry about.
But it wasn’t until the pain grew worse that she finally talked to her doctor. She underwent a colonoscopy, and her doctors uncovered something completely unexpected: she had colon cancer, Waller explained in a video posted to her Facebook page.
“When I woke up and he told me that I had a large tumuor, it was a complete shock, because I can't have cancer,” she said in disbelief. “I mean, I’m a nurse, I take care of people. I tell you you have cancer, I treat you, but I can’t have cancer-but yet here I am saying the word that makes me so nauseous.”
Colorectal cancer (colon cancer and rectal cancer) is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in both men and women in Australia, and is the third leading cause of all cancer-related deaths, according to the Cancer Council. Of the estimated over 17,000 cases of colon cancer to be diagnosed in 2018, more than 4,000 of them are estimated to be fatal.
“I’m not ready to die,” Waller says in her video. “Who even wants to think about that? ... Who gets cancer at 32?”
While colon cancer is most common in older people, a 2017 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that colon cancer rates are on the rise in people younger than 55, even among those in their 20s and 30s.
Why is colon cancer so hard to spot without screening?
In an interview with TODAY, Waller explained that, in addition to her abdominal symptoms, she was feeling unusually exhausted. “But I do have two small children and work two jobs, so when you’re 32, you can think of a million reasons why you might feel exhausted,” she explained. It wasn’t until she regularly started to spot blood in the toilet that she went in for a check-up.
“If I hadn’t been aware of my body, I would have been dead.”
The symptoms of colon cancer aren’t exactly unique (and don’t pop up in its earliest stages, when the cancer is easiest to treat): a change in your bowel habits, stomach pain and cramping, fatigue, and unintended weight loss can be caused by a number of other health problems. While rectal bleeding is a huge warning sign, things like hemorrhoids or anal fissures can also cause blood in your stool. Another big symptom is anaemia (a drop in red blood cells), but this can be caused by a nutrient deficiency.
In many cases, people don’t realise their symptoms could be pointing to colon cancer, so by the time it is detected, it’s already progressed to a harder-to-treat stage. The survival rate for colorectal cancers found at an early stage (before it has spread to other parts of the body) is 90 percent, but only 4 out of 10 colorectal cancers are detected at this time, according to the ACS.
But what about colon cancer screenings?
“I made this video because here in the United States, you don’t get screened until you are 50 years old,” Waller explained. “If I hadn’t gone in, and if I hadn’t been aware of my body, I would have been dead.”
Most colorectal cancers begin as a benign colon polyp-a clump of cells on the lining of your colon-that can take up to 15 years to turn into cancer. The easiest way to detect these polyps, and remove them early, is through regular colonoscopies.
The Cancer Council recommends Australians over 50 get tested every two years. Those with a family history of the disease should talk to their doctor about starting screenings earlier.
Waller confirmed to TODAY, however, that she doesn’t have a family history colon cancer and has always lived a relatively healthy lifestyle. That’s why she wants to spread the word: learn how to spot the symptoms and talk to your doctor about screening. “Get checked, because you never know,” she says. “Your entire world can change in a moment.”