I poop. You poop too. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s talk about poop. Recently, I had the startling experience of seeing blood on my poop and bright red blood on the toilet paper after a bowel movement — which is otherwise known as rectal bleeding. You might be thinking hemorrhoids. I certainly was. But hemorrhoids were not the culprit.
As a healthy 34-year-old with no family history, I was facing possible rectal cancer. Little did I know, colon and rectal cancers are on the rise in younger adults. The drastic increase is unexplained, so put colon and rectal cancers on your radar. Of course, rectal bleeding can be due to hemorrhoids or other benign conditions, but sometimes it’s not.
Let’s break it down, because not every doctor is informed about the rise in incidence. And not every patient (like me!) even realizes that rectal bleeding can be a sign of something serious.
My first recommendation to anyone who experiences rectal bleeding is to go the doctor. It seems obvious, right? However, some people brush the bleeding off or are too embarrassed to talk about their poop. Please, don’t let this stop you! And don’t just go to the doctor — go to as many doctors as necessary for you to feel your concerns are taken seriously.
After a weekend of self-diagnosing my rectal bleeding via obsessive internet searches, the first thing I did was call my primary care doctor. A brief exam led to exactly what I thought I wanted to hear. It was probably just hemorrhoids. After all, I had two young kids, and we all know the aftermath pregnancy can leave behind. The doctor pulled up a graph showing me my chance of having colon or rectal cancer was very, very low. He said I could consult a gastroenterologist if I wanted. Um, okay?
The next week I visited a not-taking-me-seriously gastroenterologist. She, nor the primary care doctor, actually gave me a rectal exam. I’m not claiming to be a medical professional by any means, but it seems like a problem if everyone is shouting “hemorrhoids,” and no one actually checks.
I finally found my way to a colon and rectal surgeon for another opinion. Are you interested to guess what he said after the elusive rectal exam? It’s not hemorrhoids! Just my luck. He also told me about the study released by the American Cancer Society detailing a drastic and unexplained increase in colon and rectal cancers in younger adults. Then he said I should have a colonoscopy. Well, shit. Literally.
Anyone whose doctor is interested in exploring the cause of rectal bleeding is most likely going to order a colonoscopy. Colonoscopies are the shit. You will shit out every piece of shit and shit on the way to the office and shit in the exam room. And that’s all before the procedure, which is the easy part. You will deal with getting a colonoscopy because your health is worth not eating for a day and a sore ass.
As I opened my eyes from the anesthesia-induced haze of my colonoscopy, a nurse placed a report on my chest. She breezed by and told me, “They found a big polyp.” Come again? The doctor drew diagrams and made a checklist on a whiteboard (is this ever a good thing?). He handed me a script that said: diagnosis, rectal cancer. Three biopsies were taken from a 30-millimeter polyp in my rectum. It was possible rectal cancer. A major high-five goes out to this doctor for being research-informed and trusting his gut as well as mine.
Next came blood work, an MRI, and a CT scan. As test results trickled in, I learned the biopsies showed high-grade dysplasia (not yet cancer, but “thinking about it” as the doctor put it). The scans were clear aside from an inflamed lymph node in the rectal area. This suggested possible cancer that could have spread. We wouldn’t know for sure if I had cancer or not until I had surgery to remove the mass.
As the days and weeks ticked by, I bobbed back and forth between panic and hope. I quietly reflected and understood that I might have cancer, and it might have spread. Five weeks after the bleeding episode, I had surgery to remove the polyp and the surrounding rectal wall. I did not have cancer. Cue the unbelievably deep sigh of relief.
Here’s the thing that gets me though: I could have had cancer. Rectal cancer wasn’t on my radar in the least. What if I blew off my symptoms? What if I accepted a diagnosis of probable hemorrhoids? Would I have ended up with cancer?
I sadly learn more and more about younger adults who are diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers. It’s hard not to think that could have been me. I’m passing along my story in hopes of informing others. Together, let’s stop colon and rectal cancers in their tracks.
Colon and rectal cancers can have no symptoms at all until they are advanced, and sometimes the first symptom of rectal cancer is bleeding. Be informed, and take any rectal bleeding seriously.