“Here’s How I Knew I Had Colon Cancer”: One Survivor’s Story After a Single, Subtle Symptom

Colon cancer symptoms often don't exist. An active woman shares how repeated nudges from a loved one led to her diagnosis: "My entire life changed that day."

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer affecting both men and women in the US. The American Cancer Society notes there were approximately 153,020 cases and 52,550 deaths from colorectal cancers in 2023—statistics of a magnitude that is relatively preventable.

The data on colorectal cancer cases could reduce significantly through regular screenings, says Folasade May, MD, PhD, MPhil, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, a member of Fight Colorectal Cancer’s Medical Advisory Board, and co-leader of the Stand Up To Cancer Colorectal Cancer Health Equity Dream Team. “Most colorectal cancers cause no symptoms in the early stage, when they are most treatable,” Dr. May told The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. “This is why, starting at age 45, everyone needs to get screened for colorectal cancer, regardless of whether you have symptoms or not. Age is one of the biggest factors that increase your risk, so you should not put it off.”

You may be screened for colorectal cancer through a colonoscopy or a stool test. Dr. May says both are highly accurate but suggests that a colonoscopy is considered more reliable, as it allows the doctor to examine for polyps and other abnormalities.

While the American Cancer Society recommends that people should get their first screening at age 45, if you have a family history of colorectal cancer, you should get your first screening at age 40, or 10 years earlier than the youngest age one of your near relatives was diagnosed.

If you start to experience any of the main symptoms of colorectal cancer—blood in the stool, anemia, unexplained weight loss, fatigue—then you should call your doctor about getting tested immediately, regardless of age. The Healthy @Reader’s Digest also partnered with Fight Colorectal Cancer to publish their one-minute screening quiz.

To demonstrate how crucial colon cancer screenings are, Jana Boyer, 56, of Beaverton, OR, shares how a routine colonoscopy saved her life—twice.

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Here’s how I knew I had colon cancer

By Jana Boyer, as told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

This is how confident I was that my preliminary screening for colon cancer wasn’t going to be a big deal: I wore white pants to my internal exam with my colorectal doctor. I was white-pants sure that the exam would be just a formality and wouldn’t need to be too, shall we say, thorough. I was sure everything was going to be just fine.

But it wasn’t. My entire life changed that day in July 2021 when I was diagnosed with cancer of the sigmoid, a type of colorectal cancer.

I just remember being in shock. I couldn’t wrap my brain around what the doctor was telling me. I was only 54 years old and in great shape. I did high-intensity workouts four days a week and had even run a marathon. I ate a healthy diet. I wasn’t on any medications and other than a partial hysterectomy years prior, I’d never had a major surgery or illness. I had no family history of colon cancer.

And, perhaps most shockingly, I didn’t note a single symptom. I can’t emphasize this enough: I had no pain, no blood in my stool, no constipation, no bloating, nothing. At least nothing I could recognize as a symptom of colorectal cancer.

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My G.I. issues were just food poisoning…or were they?

In June 2021 my husband and I traveled to Mexico to renew our vows. I loved every minute spent with our family and friends. Unfortunately, just before we left to fly back home to Portland, I started to experience tummy troubles. When we got home, I called my doctor and she recommended I get checked for Giardia, a parasite you can get from contaminated food or water that causes diarrhea.

I made the appointment and then had an idea: While I was going in to see a gastroenterologist, I might as well schedule my first colonoscopy at the same time. My sister-in-law is a retired colorectal nurse and had been bugging me to get one since I’d turned 50, but due to the COVID pandemic and life, I’d kept putting it off. Might as well kill two birds with one stone.

On the day of my colonoscopy, I remember asking the doctor for reassurance. He looked at me and said, “You’re a healthy, 54-year-old woman. Don’t worry. I’m not going to wake you up afterwards and tell you that you have cancer.”

The doctor wasn’t there when I woke up, but the resident gravely informed me that they had found a three-centimeter mass in my sigmoid, the 14-inch section of the large intestine that connects the rectum and colon. “What does that mean?” I asked him. “They’ll contact you in the next couple days,” he responded. And that was that.

I left and immediately called my sister-in-law, who helped interpret their discovery: “This is not good,” she said.

How High Is Your Colon Cancer Risk? This 1-Minute Quiz Helps You Find Out

Believing I was perfectly healthy to a colorectal cancer diagnosis…in a week

Thankfully I didn’t have to wait two days and my newly assigned nurse navigator called me the next morning. They recommended I come in for blood work, an MRI, and a sigmoidoscopy so they could get a better look at the mass. No one had actually said “cancer” to me yet and I still was hopeful that the mass would be benign—so I showed up to that appointment with a mostly optimistic attitude…and, white pants.

The tests showed elevated cancer markers and I officially knew I had colon cancer: Specifically, I was diagnosed with stage 1a colon cancer.

On September 24, 2021, I underwent rectal resection surgery during which the surgical team removed my entire sigmoid. Because of my concerns about COVID and the isolation that would occur at the hospital, they allowed me to participate in a program where I was discharged home to recover with an iPad next to me. My doctor and a nurse were on call from my fingertips, and they sent an EMT twice a day to check on me.

Returning home gave me the chance to rest, until I heard a noise outside my window in what would become a moment of strength and inspiration: The high school football team, which my husband head coaches, gathered outside my bedroom window and serenaded me with the school’s fight song!

I would need that fighting spirit. Four days later, we got the results of the biopsy taken during the surgery. Out of 30 lymph nodes removed, 17 of them had cancer. My diagnosis changed from stage 1a to 3c in a moment.

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From cancer fighter, to survivor, to awareness advocate

After four weeks I’d recovered enough to start the next phase of my cancer treatment. In November 2021 I started six months of chemotherapy. It was brutal, but I was determined not to let it stop me from doing what I love. I knew I had colon cancer, but colon cancer didn’t have me!

I continued working at my job, doing in-home visits helping people with diabetes get the care and supplies they need. Talking to those folks, who were fighting their own chronic illness, was so inspiring and uplifting. They cheered me on every step of the way.

Thanks to the support of my loved ones and my amazing medical team, in June 2022 I was declared to be in remission from colon cancer.

Now I have to undergo five years of surveillance, which means blood work and a sigmoidoscopy every three months (I leave the white pants at home!) and a CT scan every six months. I had a mild scare recently in December 2023 when they found a small colon polyp—a possible precursor to colon cancer—but they removed it and found no more signs of cancer.

Since my diagnosis and treatment, I’ve had a lot of time to think and talk about how I knew I had colon cancer. It’s made me realize how many people are unaware of the risks. Too many people assume that they’ll have some telltale sign of colon cancer—like blood in their stool, or abdominal pain—but most people experience no symptoms at all in the early stages. By the time you have those symptoms, the cancer is far more advanced and difficult to treat.

This is why early and timely colon cancer screenings are so important! I hope sharing my story of how I knew I had colon cancer helps spread awareness. I tell everyone to know their risk factors and not to wait to get a colonoscopy. Today I’m still not sure whether my upset stomach after vacation was a symptom, or whether that was a separate issue entirely. But just like my sister-in-law motivated me, in the past year I’ve motivated over 100 people to get their screenings who’ve then found polyps and had them removed.

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There are no guarantees in life, so make it a good one

Facing my mortality made me realize what was truly important to me, and what I should let go. In the past year I’ve gone back to my childhood home in Hawaii four times, gone on a backpacking expedition with my best friend, spent more time with my friends and family, picked back up with the gym and going on runs. And, I ditched all my toxic makeup, cleaning and household products in favor of healthier options. It’s not about perfection or never getting cancer again—it’s about finding a happy balance between doing what I love and taking care of my health.

I’ve also started a daily gratitude practice. One thing I’m particularly grateful for right now? This opportunity to share my story with people around the world to inspire them to get screened for colon cancer. After you read this, reach out to your doctor to see whether you should be screened.

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Sources

American Cancer Society: Colorectal Cancer

Folasade May, MD, co-leader of the Stand Up To Cancer Colorectal Cancer Health Equity Dream Team, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and a member of Fight Colorectal Cancer's Medical Advisory Board.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, MS, is an award-winning journalist, author, and ghostwriter who for nearly two decades has covered health, fitness, parenting, relationships, and other wellness and lifestyle topics for major outlets, including Reader’s Digest, O, The Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and many more. Charlotte has made appearances with television news outlets such as CBS, NBC, and FOX. She is a certified group fitness instructor in Denver, where she lives with her husband and their five children.