Colon cancer was not on Carly Barrett’s radar when she suddenly started experiencing stomach symptoms at the age of 24.
She had no family history of the disease and no other health problems.
A serious illness did not seem possible for a young teacher starting her career, traveling with friends and enjoying life with her future husband.
Yet those lingering symptoms were about Barrett. She noticed blood in her stool, had stomach pains, lost weight and felt a mass in her abdomen. Looking at these warning signs online, she thought they were caused by hemorrhoids, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease.
When Barrett mentioned the issues to her gynecologist, the doctor told her they were absolutely not normal and urged her to see a gastroenterologist.
This gastroenterology specialist’s office set him up for an appointment six months later, which Barrett took as a sign that his symptoms couldn’t be so concerning. Colon cancer was always the last thing on her mind.
“I was like, I’m 24. I am too young. Cancer does not happen to people of this age. Cancer doesn’t happen to people who don’t have it in their family,” Barrett, who is now 28 and teaches 4th grade in Louisville, Kentucky, told TODAY.com.
“But it is, and colon cancer is no longer a disease (of the elderly).”
‘In a state of shock’
Barrett’s diagnosis in June 2019 came before she went to that GI appointment and as her symptoms got progressively worse.
She was returning from a vacation in Europe when she felt an “indescribable pain” in her abdomen while flying from Spain to the United States. Flight attendants cleared a row for her to lie on and she was rushed to the emergency room upon arrival. House.
A CT scan and biopsy revealed stage 3 colon cancer.
“You’re in shock, and my next thought was just, OK, what are the next steps?” What treatment options do I have? she remembers thinking.
Barrett underwent exploratory surgery in which doctors removed a large tumor and 2 feet from her bowel, she says. She had to adapt to life with an ostomy bag.
One of her ovaries was also removed because the tumor was pushing against it. A month later – before starting chemotherapy that could lead to early menopause – Barrett underwent an egg retrieval process with the only remaining ovary to give her a chance to have children.
This first chemotherapy failed, the colon cancer metastasizing in his liver. She was now at stage 4.
The next chemotherapy drug just kept her stable, which her doctor didn’t like. He wanted the cancer to regress and recommended turning to immunotherapy. Barrett and her family sought advice from leading institutions, but were discouraged at first.
An oncologist told her that “immunotherapy wouldn’t work for me and I should pretty much go home and be comfortable,” she recalled. The family did not accept this scenario and continued to search for options.
Cancer shrinks thanks to immunotherapy
Finally, a Vanderbilt University doctor urged Barrett to participate in a clinical trial for the immunotherapy drug atezolizumab, also known as Tecentriq, which she joined in February 2020. She qualified because ‘she has a tumor marker called PD-L1 that was likely to respond to treatment.
He did just that, with Barrett’s cancer eventually shrinking. Today, she says she is in remission and has no signs of illness. She shared her story on TikTok to show other colon cancer patients that there are success stories.
Doctors never gave her “any kind of expiry date”, she says – the hope is that the cancer never comes back, although the long-term prognosis is unknown. She has scans every four months to monitor for any recurrence.
Barrett married in April 2022. A month later, she had an ostomy reversal and no longer has to live with an ostomy bag.
“Physically, I’m able to function normally,” Barrett says.
“Mentally, I’m still trying to get back to normal, but I don’t think I ever will. I’m getting used to this new normal.
Doctors were unable to explain why she developed colon cancer at such a young age. A recent report from the American Cancer Society reveals that colon cancer diagnoses in people under 55 have doubled from 11% in 1995 to 20% in 2019. The cause remains a mystery.
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death among men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. It is expected to cause more than 52,000 deaths in 2023, the organization estimates.
Regular screening with colonoscopy or other strategies should begin at age 45, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Barrett urges people of all ages to listen to their bodies and get in control soon.
“Don’t put off going to see a doctor. Go immediately. I was fired for six months. I shouldn’t have agreed to their schedule, but I went to see him immediately so I could take take care of me on my own schedule,” she says.
“I feel like six months could have even pushed me to stage 4. If I had been (screened) earlier, it wouldn’t have progressed to this level.”
This article originally appeared on TODAY.com