HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - As a healthy 36-year-old, Tracy Dwyer never imagined she would be diagnosed with colon cancer. Within a month of finding out, she was in the operating room.
Dwyer was living in San Jose, California, working full time, owned a business and was even teaching physical education.
“I was living a healthy lifestyle but I did have a lot of stress in my life and I think that contributes to illness also,” Dwyer said.
One day, Dwyer unexpectedly noticed a common symptom of colon cancer: rectal bleeding.
“I thought well, maybe it’s hemorrhoids,” Dwyer said. “I didn’t really know anything about colon cancer at the time.”
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It’s most common in people 50 and older, but in recent years, there’s been an increase in younger adults being diagnosed.
After noticing the bleeding, Dwyer scheduled an appointment with her gynecologist who then sent her to a colon rectal surgeon. Dwyer remembers being a bit confused, but is thankful her doctor took action.
“I am glad my doctor acted quickly because when I went to the surgeon he was able to do a sigmoidoscopy in his office and he found I had a polyp and when he sent it in to be biopsied it was cancerous,” Dwyer said.
About a month later, Dwyer was having surgery to get the cancerous polyp removed. She lost 10 inches of her colon. Luckily, the cancer had not spread and Dwyer didn’t require any further treatment. She was eager to quickly gain back her strength and move forward.
“It was a hard recovery but I was determined to -- when I was in the hospital -- make it over to the nursery so I could see the newborn babies,” Dwyer said. “So I started my journey walking, and every day I would walk a little further, a little further, until finally I had met my goal of getting over to the other side of the hospital. So once I got out of the hospital, I started walking three times a day. Just short walks. And I just built on that.”
Ever since her diagnosis, Dwyer has been on a mission to inform young people about colon cancer and raise awareness about living a healthy lifestyle.
“I wasn’t at the point that I am at now where I really dove in to nutrition and started studying nutrition and what foods help fight cancer and what foods I needed to eat to keep me healthy,” Dwyer said. “And when you eat a healthy diet and exercise, you really get more in touch with your body. So if something is not right you can feel it inside and then you say, ‘wait a minute I am going to go have the doctor check this out and see if anything is going on.’”
Dwyer published a book called Healthy Meals in Minutes and is working on another one about how to boost your immune system and lose weight.
“We really need to get that message out that young people do get colon cancer and that eating healthy, getting daily exercise, that is all important in preventing any kind of disease,” Dwyer said.
In addition to advocating for healthy living, Dwyer has been pushing the American Cancer Society to lower the colon cancer screening age to 35 or 40 years old. The ACS currently recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.
“If you have symptoms, if you have any pain or any bleeding, or any changes in bowel habits, see your doctor. And if you feel like something is wrong, be sure to push it,” Dwyer said. “Don’t just have them say, ‘well maybe it’s this or maybe it’s that.’ Because if my doctor wasn’t proactive in sending me to the colon rectal surgeon I might have been one of those people who died from colon cancer.”
According to Huntsville colon and rectal surgeon Blake Spindler, knowing when something feels off in your body is vital. Although most people diagnosed with colon cancer are asymptomatic, there are some common signs and symptoms that should never be overlooked.
Bleeding and obstruction are two of them. If you see blood in your stool, take action right away. Obstruction can be abdominal pain, constipation, bloating or changes in bowel habits. Spindler said those are all reasons to see your doctor. Delaying a colonoscopy could only make treatment harder if are you later diagnosed, and could even risk your life.
“Usually, the point of a colonoscopy is to find polyps, which would eventually turn into colon cancer,” Spindler said. “So you can remove a polyp. So theoretically if you get screened early and often enough, you could potentially never get colon cancer. You could remove every polyp that would have ever turned into colon cancer. So it’s actually a preventative test, not just a screening test.”
Dr. Spindler said genetics play a factor in someone getting colon cancer. But he also believes lifestyle choices and healthy living make a big difference, too.
For more information about Colorectal Cancer screening, you can visit this website: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/acs-recommendations.html
Check out Tracy Dwyer’s Healthy Meals in Minutes: https://www.amazon.com/Healthy-Meals-Minutes-Tracy-Dwyer/dp/1499905246