Life with Gracie: When should you be concerned about colon cancer?


We don’t hear much about women and colorectal cancer, but it happens. And sometimes it happens earlier than even medical professionals would expect. Really early.

Hard to believe? Ask attorney Tawny Mack of Atlanta.

She was a senior at Georgia Southern University when she first saw blood in her stool and suspected something might be wrong.

Mack did all the right things. She immediately saw a doctor, but was told she most likely had hemorrhoids.

If it happened again, the doctor told her, see your primary care physician.

“I don’t remember having another episode for a while, but in the fall of 2009, I had a major bleeding episode,” Mack said. “It scared me so much I went to the emergency room.”

This time, after running some tests, a doctor concluded Mack had ulcerative colitis and, after recommending she do an elimination diet to determine what food she’d eaten to trigger the bleeding, discharged her.

At home, she logged onto the Internet to find out everything there is about colitis and figured the doctor was spot on.

She watched her diet and concluded red pasta sauce was the culprit.

RELATED: How dying taught Cobb attorney what it meant to live life fully

But four years later in 2013, after graduating from law school and accepting a job at a Savannah firm, there was more blood and more often. Again, without performing a physical exam, her doctor dismissed Mack’s suspicions.

Unbelievable, right?

“From then until 2015, I’d see him for various reasons and bring up my continued bleeding,” she said. “He’d suggest a fiber supplement and hemorrhoid cream. I did all of those things, but my symptoms never went away.”

By then, Mack was 28. That and the fact that she was physically active, her doctor assured her, ruled her out for cancer.

But the bleeding continued and she began experiencing abdominal pain. A fourth doctor also ruled out cancer, told Mack that she had ulcerative colitis, jotted down the name of a fiber supplement and handed it to her.

If you’d like a colonoscopy, I’ll do it but you’ll have to wait, he told her.

Mack, feeling belittled, left his office in tears.

When they finally called to schedule the colonoscopy, the earliest appointment available was sometime around Christmas. Mack decided to wait until the new year because she had not met her insurance deductible. She focused instead on pursuing job opportunities in Atlanta.

It was June when she finally followed up.

Two weeks later when she awoke from her colonoscopy, the news was bad. There was a large mass in Mack’s colon and rectum.

As horrible as this might sound, it’s not all that unusual. It’s also a classic example of why we must be our own health advocates.

According to a 2016 Colon Cancer Alliance study on young-onset colorectal cancer patients, 82 percent of participants were initially misdiagnosed before ultimately being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Thirty-nine percent were misdiagnosed with hemorrhoids like Mack. And like Mack, 44 percent of the study’s participants felt that their diagnosis was delayed due to their age.

Young adults, in fact, are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at an alarming rate. And yet, the standard age to begin screening for colorectal cancer is 50.

Tawny Mack was just 21 when the first symptoms appeared.

RELATED: More millennials are diagnosed with colon cancer — here are some signs

Fourteen days after her diagnosis on June 28, 2016, Mack’s surgeon removed her tumor, 47 lymph nodes, almost all of her rectum, and a decent amount of her colon. On July 17, she had an emergency surgery because of an anastomotic leak. Mack awoke from that surgery with an ileostomy. Ultimately, doctors determined she had stage 3C colorectal cancer, which required six months of chemotherapy.

She finished the treatment in February, but there was more bad news in May. Doctors found a mass in front of Mack’s aorta and suspicious lymph nodes right below her thoracic inlet.

“It stumped everyone because colorectal cancer normally spreads to ovaries, liver, lungs, bone and brain,” Mack said.

When they took the mass out in June, tests showed it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Mack had to undergo another two months of chemotherapy followed by radiation treatments, which she finished on Oct. 18.

“I have a family history of Hodgkin’s, but no history or genetic markers of colorectal cancer. The good news is that because I’m being watched so closely for colorectal cancer recurrence, they caught lymphoma at its earliest stage.”

RELATED: Keeping colorectal cancer at bay

She says all of this as if she’s talking about a day in the office but then concedes “the world is a terrifying place for me right now.”

“I live in constant fear of colorectal cancer occurrence,” she said.

Mack is 31 now. She’s married and has a good support network.

That’s why, when she stumbled upon the Colon Cancer Alliance’s website during her recovery last year, she knew she had to participate in the nonprofit’s Undy Run/Walk, held annually to raise awareness about colorectal cancer and funds to promote prevention and connect patients to treatment.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, so many people want to help you,” she said. “I thought this was a way for people who wanted to help to contribute to a cause that I think is very important.”

She and 11 of her closest friends participated again last Saturday, raising more than $2,500.

“If detected early enough, colorectal cancer is no big deal. It’s very important to put this on the radar,” Mack said. “My peers should listen to their bodies, take themselves seriously and never be afraid to push back or question what a physician is telling them.

“We consider them experts because they have devoted so much of their lives to treating people. We don’t want to be disrespectful, but we have to remember that doctors are human beings. They make mistakes. If they’re unwilling to figure out the root cause of your health issue, it’s OK to get a second opinion or third or fourth.”

Please. Listen to her.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

Atlanta comedy club Relapse Theatre successfully lives up to its name
Atlanta comedy club Relapse Theatre successfully lives up to its name

If you were telling a joke about the Atlanta comedy club that closed for three years and reopened last April, the punchline would be that its name is Relapse Theatre.  “All tragedy is comedy, right?” says Relapse founder Bob Wood when asked why he chose the moniker. He just thought relapse sounded cool. He also wanted something...
Cheers, maybe some tears as Buckhead Ritz-Carlton becomes The Whitley
Cheers, maybe some tears as Buckhead Ritz-Carlton becomes The Whitley

Depending on who you talk to, what’s happening at the the southwest corner of Lenox and Peachtree roads is cause for celebration or mourning. After more than three decades as the both literal and figurative nexus of Buckhead’s society set and the scene of numerous celebrity encounters, the hotel occupying this rarefied...
5 places to catch the blues in Atlanta
5 places to catch the blues in Atlanta

Atlanta is a big enough town that finding a list of a dozen bars offering life-sized jenga and another dozen where bocce ball is close to club sport is easy to do. Yet, if you wanted to make a list of bars to listen to the blues — slim pickings. That may have something to do with shifting generational music tastes. There just aren't many hot...
Loving the lake life: 6 things to do near Allatoona Lake
Loving the lake life: 6 things to do near Allatoona Lake

There's a lot of Allatoona Lake to love. When it's full, the lake, located in northwestern metro Atlanta, covers more than 12,000 acres and has 270 miles of shoreline. With all that coverage, spanning parts of Cobb County and Bartow County, there won't be a shortage of things you'll love to do there — from water sports to luxury outings...
Barack Obama posted a Joe Biden meme and Twitter can’t handle it

So ardent was the bromance between former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden that the “barackandjoe” Twitter account is a thing. If you have time to kill and need a chuckle by way of photos of Biden pointing at stuff or smiling cheekily complete with clever captions, check it out &ndash...
More Stories