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Colon cancer survivor urges young adults to talk to their families this Thanksgiving

November 21, 2017


Kelly Smith and her son just five months before she was diagnosed with colon cancer

Kelly Smith and her son just five months before she was diagnosed with colon cancer

The holidays as a young adult can sometimes feel more like an interrogation than a time of merriment. Often, you're bombarded with questions. When are you going to settle down? How are your college grades? When can we expect grandbabies? This year, young adults should prepare with the comeback that could reap health benefits for years to come. Ask your interrogators, "What is our family's health history?"

Thanksgiving is also known as National Family History Day. Medical professionals want you to ask your family about their health, because down the road, it could be your health too. By knowing what conditions run in your family, you can learn about diseases you could potentially face one day and what you can do in an effort to prevent them.

So, what do you ask? The American Cancer Society cites recent studies showing a sharp rise in colon and rectal cancer rates among young adults. You could start there. While colonoscopies, abnormal bowel movements and cancer don't seem like appetizing dinner conversation, more and more people in their 20's and 30's are being diagnosed with colon cancer.

At 35 years old, Kelly Smith was diagnosed with colon cancer. The Waynesboro mother of three said at that point in her life, things were going great. She had just celebrated Mother's Day with her family when one evening, she had severe abdominal pain.

"I went to the doctor earlier that day and everything was fine. Later in the day, the pain would not go away," said Smith.

It wasn't until the following day Kelly was convinced she needed to go to the hospital. Doctors in the Emergency Department at Waynesboro Hospital found she had a perforated bowel, and needed to be flown out for an emergency surgery. Almost a week after having surgery to repair her bowel, her surgeon called and told her she had stage-four colon cancer.

One in five people who develop colon cancer have another family member who had it. Kelly was not one of them.

"I didn't have any risk factors, no family history. I was healthy," said Smith.

The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and liver. The surgery on her bowel had left her with a colostomy. The next several months were filled with exhausting chemotherapy treatments. Kelly also had another surgery to remove half of her liver.

"In some respects, my life is better now after this experience. In terms of my faith, I don't take things for granted. Also, I realize things can change in the blink of an eye. I went from playing with my son in the park one day, to being diagnosed with colon cancer the next, stage four at that," said Smith.

Smith finished her chemo treatments in 2014, and continues to visit Dr. Fawaz Hakki at WellSpan Digestive Health for annual colonoscopies. Last year, she had her colostomy reversed. She now spends her free time volunteering with the Frederick County Maryland Cancer Coalition to spread awareness. There, Kelly urges young adults to get coloscopies.

"It's not pretty, but neither is cancer. You take the prep one night, you flush your system, you have the procedure, you wake up and it's over. At least you can rest knowing you've been checked," said Smith.

Colon cancer is the most beatable and preventable cancer when detected early. Symptoms include abdominal pain and tenderness, diarrhea, blood in the stool and weight loss.

"Almost all colon cancers start in the lining of the colon and rectum. There's no one single cause, but all cancers in this part of the body begin as noncancerous polyps, which slowly develop into cancer," said Dr. Hakki.

Risk factors include age, diet, inflammatory bowel disease, and family history.

Dr. Hakki explained, "While the test is recommended for everyone over the age of 50, people with a strong family history of colon cancer may want to have the test done earlier. Also, studies have found the incidence of colorectal cancer is higher among African Americans, often occurring in people younger than 50. So, African Americans should consider starting their annual colonoscopies at age 45."

Kelly said staying positive was the key to getting her through her cancer fight and offers this advice for everyone: "Pay attention to your body and don't wait to get evaluated. If anything seems out of the ordinary, visit your provider."

Remember that in addition to colon cancer, heart disease, other types of cancer and diabetes all have strong ties to family history. So, as you're enjoying time with family this holiday, remember to ask about your family health history. Having the knowledge could be something to give thanks for in the years to come.