A New Jersey woman was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer at age 28 after doctors dismissed her symptoms as ‘part of pregnancy.’
Kelly Spill, now 31, was eight months pregnant with her first child when she started having constipation and blood in her stool.
Her doctors assured her it was normal, as she was so close to giving birth. But after eight months, her bowel habits continued to worsen. Still, doctors insisted the changes were from having just had a baby.
When doctors finally ordered a colonoscopy, they discovered stage three colorectal cancer, which has exploded into an epidemic in young Americans.
Kelly Spill, now 31, was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer at age 28. Doctors had dismissed her symptoms as pregnancy and postpartum-related
Ms Spill experienced constipation, blood in the stool, and a lack of appetite. When she noticed a pool of blood in the toilet one day, she knew something wasn’t right
‘I felt very exhausted, and it made me second-guess what I was actually feeling because I was being brushed off,’ Ms Spill told TODAY.com.
‘When you don’t have someone listening to you, it’s really, really hard to continue to keep going.’
The blood in her stool, the most common symptom young people with colorectal cancer report, was blamed on pregnancy hemorrhoids, which can affect one in three pregnant women, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Even after giving birth, doctors assured her it was a normal postpartum symptom. She was still constipated, and the blood in her stool was dark and sticky rather than bright red.
Ms Spill was also in the middle of moving from California to New Jersey at the time, so she thought stress may have been to blame.
However, when her son was five months old, her symptoms became even more concerning. She lost her appetite, becoming full after just one bite, and lost seven pounds.
Then, one day, there was ‘a pool of blood’ in the toilet. That’s when she realized something was wrong.
At the emergency room, doctors told Ms Spill to lay off the spicy foods.
After seeing another primary care doctor and a gastroenterologist, she finally had a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer.
In the parking lot, she broke down crying.
Data from JAMA Surgery shows that colon cancer is expected to rise by 90 percent in people ages 20 to 34
The same data shows that rectal cancer will rise by 124 percent in the youngest age group
Colorectal cancer rates are on the rise worldwide, especially in people who are young.
Rates are expected to double in under-50s in the US by 2030, and colorectal cancer is also expected to become the leading cause of cancer deaths in Americans under 50 by the end of the decade.
This is based on data from JAMA Surgery, which found that between 2010 and 2030, colon cancer will have increased by 90 percent in people ages 20 to 34. Rectal cancer will have spiked by 124 percent in the same age group.
Cancers of the colon and rectum are the third most common type in the US and the third leading cause of death in both men and women.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates about 153,000 colorectal cancer cases will be detected this year, including 19,500 among those under 50 years old.
Some 52,550 people are expected to die from the disease.
Experts are still working to unravel the cause of this devastating epidemic.
They have commonly blamed unhealthy diets, alcohol consumption, and sedentary lifestyles on this shift.
A study from the Cleveland Clinic suggested that eating red meat and sugar could lead to a higher chance of young people developing colorectal cancer.
However, some research suggests otherwise.
A 2021 study, for example, found that early-onset cancer patients were less likely to be obese or be smokers than their older counterparts.
A study published in April examined how being born via C-section influenced the chance of developing early-onset colorectal cancer. The researchers found that females born via C-section were more likely to develop colorectal cancer earlier in life than those born vaginally. There was no association among males.
Additionally, antibiotic use has been shown to impact this risk. One study in the journal Gut found that prolonged antibiotic use increased the risk of early-onset colon cancer. However, it was also associated with a lower risk of rectal cancer.
And one study showed that the fungus Cladosporium sp. was more common in the tumors of young patients than in older individuals.
It’s still unclear how Cladosporium sp. could lead to this increase in cases, but the researchers think it could damage cell DNA. This could turn them into cancerous cells.
These environmental factors have a lasting impact on the gut microbiome, which experts think could increase the risk of colorectal cancer, even when exposure is limited to early life.
Ms Spill started experiencing symptoms when she was eight months pregnant with her first child. After diagnosis, she froze her eggs and has since given birth again to a daughter
Ms Spill wasn’t able to get married in Switzerland like she planned after diagnosis, though she and her partner did eventually wed in Washington state
At the time of her diagnosis, doctors told Ms Spill it was time to preserve her eggs before chemotherapy and radiation so she could have another child later. She and her partner were also planning on getting married in Switzerland. When she asked the doctor if she could still do that, he said ‘absolutely not.’
As she prepared for treatment, a nurse asked her if she would be willing to participate in a clinical trial for an immunotherapy drug. If it shrunk the tumor, she could skip chemo and radiation.
The trial is still ongoing and has enrolled 42 patients so far. It involves patients receiving the medication dostarlimab via an infusion every three weeks for six months.
Ms Spill noticed a difference after her second infusion and ‘felt great.’
After four treatments, her tumor had been slashed in half.
By the ninth treatment, the tumor was completely gone. She said it was ‘probably the best day of my life.’
Ms Spill is far from the only young patient who has had their symptoms dismissed by doctors.
Part of what makes colorectal cancer difficult to diagnose is its symptoms, which can often be attributed to other conditions. However, some stand out more than others.
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that the most reported symptoms were abdominal pain, blood in the stool, diarrhea, and iron-deficiency anemia.
Additionally, in a 2020 survey by Colorectal Cancer Alliance, 68 percent of participants said they experienced blood in their stool. The average participant age was 42.
The same survey also found that many patients with colorectal cancer symptoms were initially misdiagnosed or dismissed.
Spending longer amounts of time without a diagnosis could allow colorectal cancer to advance to later stages, making it more difficult to treat.
Ms Spill has since gotten married and had her second child, a daughter named Maya Grace. She also encourages others to speak up when they feel something isn’t right.
‘Go with your gut when you feel something is up with your body,’ she said. ‘Really advocate for yourself, continue to push.’