When Annie Schreiber first saw blood in her stool last summer, her doctor insisted it was nothing to worry about.
Though that is the classic sign of colorectal cancer, Annie, a mother of three young children, was just 36, making her 15 years too young to be a classic candidate – current guidelines recommend screening from age 50.
He said it was, at worst, hemorrhoids, but drinking more water and eating more fiber should do the trick.
It didn’t. Eventually she went in for a colonoscopy, just to be sure, and it revealed the doctor was off the mark: Annie was diagnosed with Stage 1 colorectal cancer, an increasingly prevalent disease among 30-somethings, particularly women.
The first thing Annie, of West Lafayette, Indiana, thought about was her small children and the prospect of not watching them grow up. The prospect of losing her quality of life, through painful surgeries and scant medical options, came next.
At first, Annie was told her only option was a colostomy bag, until she found a second doctor who said they could avoid that with a risky surgery.
Speaking with Daily Mail Online, she describes her fight to beat the cancer while maintaining her life at work and home.
‘It was like someone took the air out of the room,’ said Annie, who had no risk factors for the disease before she was diagnosed. ‘I was young and healthy. It didn’t even cross my mind that cancer was a possibility.’
Colorectal cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US, is a disease that starts in the colon or rectum.
When Annie spotted blood in her stool last summer, she knew that warranted a visit to the doctor but she wasn’t very concerned about it.
After she described her symptoms to her family doctor a few days later, he believed she was suffering from hemorrhoids and told her to drink more water and eat more fiber.
Annie, who works full time at Biotech and takes care of a three-year-old daughter, an eight-year-old son, and a six-year-old daughter with her husband Sven, obliged.
‘Because I was 36 years old with three young children, he thought it was just hemorrhoids,’ Annie said.
Hemorrhoids is a condition where swollen and inflamed veins in the rectum and anus cause discomfort and bleeding. Its symptoms include rectal pain, bleeding, and itching – another one of Annie’s symptoms.
After drinking more water and consuming more food with fiber for a month, she realized her symptoms were not going away.
That’s when her family doctor suggested she see a gastroenterologist (GI), a doctor who specializes in diseases of the stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum.
The GI doctor suggested she get a colonoscopy a procedure where doctors use a four-foot long tube with a camera to examine the inside of the large intestine or bowel – but he assured her that her chances of actually having colorectal cancer is very slim.
Annie, who was very anxious at this point, thought it was likely that she’d have cancer, so she decided it to put the whole procedure off.
Days later, Annie came across an article that claimed more and more people under the age of 50 are developing colorectal cancer.
She was shocked to learn that two people her age, also with young families, had died because colorectal cancer had spread to other parts of their body before it was detected.
Annie scheduled a colonoscopy immediately.
‘That article might have saved my life,’ she said. ‘I scheduled a colonoscopy right away, which is something no one wants to do.’
Annie was devastated when the diagnostic procedure revealed she had colorectal cancer on August 16, 2017.
‘I was anxious when I was experiencing symptoms and I was just a mess when they completed the testing and diagnosed me with cancer,’ Annie said.
‘A big concern was that my children would end up coming of age without their parent,’ she added. ‘It was difficult for me to picture my children having to navigate that.’
Thankfully, further testing and scans revealed that the cancer didn’t spread to any other major organs.
Since the cancer was located deep in the tissue near the anus, her next step was to undergo major surgery to remove the cancer.
However, doctors at her local hospital in Indiana said the surgery she needed would require her to permanently wear a colostomy bag, a small pouch connected to the abdomen to collect waste products that would usually pass through a person’s rectum and anus.
‘The most important thing was to survive,’ Annie said. ‘The second most important thing now was to preserve my quality of life.’
‘The question was if I live for another 50 years, what do I want those years to look like?’ she asked.
She then sought a second opinion consultation with Cleveland Clinic.
Annie was pleased when surgeon Dr Scott Steele, chairman of the department of colorectal surgery at Cleveland Clinic, told her it was potentially possible to avoid wearing a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.
‘I was relieved to know that there were options,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want to wear a colostomy bag at 36, I mean, I have kids and an active lifestyle.’
Annie had the major surgery in November 2017, using a procedure called minimally invasive surgical technique called transanal total mesorectal excision (TaTME).
‘With rectal cancer, first and foremost our goal is to cure the patient,’ said Dr. Steele. ‘But the other aspect is to improve the quality of life. And if we achieve both, it’s an incredible outcome.’
The surgery, which removed her rectum and a section of her colon, was successful and didn’t require her to permanently wear a colostomy bag.
After the surgery, Annie was prescribed three months of chemotherapy starting in January.
‘My initial thought when I was diagnosed was that cancer is a death sentence and that it’s all over,’ Annie said. ‘After that experience, I realized that’s not the case.’
Annie is part of an increasing number of adults developing colorectal cancer at a younger age.
However, the reason for the rise in both incidence and death rates remains unclear.
‘It definitely has a genetic component and an environmental component to it, however it is difficult to pinpoint exactly the primary cause for this situation,’ Dr Steele told Daily Mail Online. ‘It is important to note that this recent rise in the young adults is separate from the traditional hereditary syndromes that are associated with a diagnosis at a younger age.’
A 2017 study led by researchers at American Cancer Society found that colon cancer and rectal cancer incidence rates have increased one to two percent each year for adults ages 20 to 39 from the mid-1990s through 2013.
Furthermore, research published in a 2017 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found adults born in 1990 may twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer at the same age had they been born in 1950.
Experts say these findings are concerning.
‘It is surprising to see the shift to younger patients and concerning in that we have made tremendous efforts to work on education, screening, and identifying patients early—even in the polyp stage,’ Dr Steele said.
He said colorectal cancer usually starts in a non-cancerous growth called a polyp that forms on the lining of the colon and rectum. It’s ideal to catch them at this early stage, but many young patients cancers are advanced and in its later stages when diagnosed.
‘I think it is important to note that despite this increase in colorectal cancer incidence in the young adults, the number of cases is still relatively low,’ Dr Steele said. ‘In other words, the trend is real but small.’
Annie said she’s sharing her story because wants young adults to be more aware of their health.
‘If they’re having a symptom that doesn’t seem right, they should definitely get that checked out,’ she said.
People who are overweight and obese, smoke, not physically active and have a diet high in red and/or processed meat have an increased risk of developing colon and rectum cancer.
Symptoms of the disease include extreme fatigue, weight loss, blood in stool, change in bowel habits, constipation, narrow stools, or passing excessive amounts of gas.
Dr Steele said that in many cases, colorectal cancer prevention starts by eating healthy, increasing fiber intake, and exercising.