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A Flexible Sigmoidoscopy Saved My Life: Ashley Havlena’s Story

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After Various Doctors Dismissed Her Symptoms, A Flexible Sigmoidoscopy Revealed Stage III Rectal Cancer – Ashley Was Just 24 Years Old

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I started to notice some blood streaks in my stool in spring 2008. The first couple times I noticed this, I thought I may have eaten something that turned my stool red. But I soon realized this was not the case. I was in nursing school and I knew having blood in your stool, even a small amount, was not normal. So I set up an appointment with the doctor. On my first visit, I was told I had anal fissures and was given suppositories and sent on my way. A few months later, when the bleeding did not stop, I went to another doctor who said I had hemorrhoids, though she could not see any of them. Again, I was a given a cream and sent home. A few months after that, the bleeding had gotten so bad that it looked like I had my monthly period when I went to the bathroom. I was finally told by a different doctor I needed a colonoscopy, but it was most likely colitis, and I was given another cream.

When I told my mom, a nurse, the doctor had suggested a colonoscopy, she thought that was unnecessary. Her reasoning was, "You're 24...you don't need a colonoscopy!" She said I should go see my doctor back home in Nebraska that I had seen my entire life. I conceded. And when I went, he said he could do a flexible sigmoidoscopy ("flex sig") in the office.

 

Ashley Havlena, Colon Cancer Survivor, with Her Mother "As a nurse, I knew there was a possibility that the bleeding could be from a tumor. However, I was so young; I thought it was very unlikely. Going into the scope, I just wanted an answer to why I was bleeding."

 

My prep for the flex sig only included a Fleet enema. After the enema, I was taken to a normal exam room for the test. The scope lasted only about 15 or 20 minutes. Afterwards, I felt very bloated from all the air used to inflate the bowel.

Honestly, the part of the test I was most afraid of was the enema. Looking back, that was silly! I remember thinking, 'How am I supposed to keep all that liquid in my butt and walk to the bathroom? It's going to leak out!' As a nurse, I knew there was a possibility that the bleeding could be from a tumor. However, I was so young; I thought it was very unlikely. Going into the scope, I just wanted an answer to why I was bleeding.

After the test, I could tell something was wrong by my doctor’s demeanor. He wound up taking three biopsies of a "growth" he found. I could tell he thought it was cancer. He told me, "There was a growth, but we won't know anything until the biopsies are back." The flex sig was on a Friday and on Monday at 6:15 p.m., he called and told me it was stage III rectal cancer.

I believe that if I was scoped the very first time I went to the doctor for bleeding, my cancer would have been prevented or caught at a very early stage. However, my age made doctors believe it was not colon cancer. With persistence of making appointments with different doctors, I was able to find the cause of the bleeding — cancer — before it spread to other organs.

Flex sigs cans sometimes be uncomfortable, but it is worth it in the end if it catches polyps or early stage cancer. A flex sig that lasts a few minutes will always be more tolerable than months of chemo, radiation and multiple surgeries. My flex sig gave my doctors and I insight to why I was bleeding and allowed the treatment process to get underway. If I had put off getting scoped because of fear of pain or expense, I would be sitting here today with a constantly growing tumor in my rectum that could possibly spread to other organs. Instead, I am cancer free and getting back to the life of a normal 25-year-old with school, work, friends and family.

It is my mission to not only educate others on the importance of screening and being your own health advocate, but also to remind doctors that people under age 50 can get colon cancer too. Even women in their early 20s that eat healthy, don't smoke, rarely drink and exercise can get colon cancer, like I did. There is no obvious reason to what caused my cancer, and the diagnosis caused me much pain, anxiety and fear. However, being able to educate others on the screening process and how colon cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable is what drives me to make a difference.

Ashley Havlena, 25
Olathe, KS

 

The Colon Cancer Alliance’s mission is to knock colon cancer out of the top three cancer killers. This mission is being accomplished by championing prevention, funding cutting-edge research and providing the highest quality patient support services. Learn more at ccalliance.org.

 

Published March 3, 2014

 

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