- Ashley Teague, now 30, suffered unexplained weight loss, diarrhea and bloody stools for months.
- She said her doctors turned down her colonoscopy requests because she was young and looked healthy.
- She had colon cancer and Lynch syndrome, a genetic condition that increases the risk of several cancers.
Ashley Teague didn’t know why she started losing weight in the spring of 2019, and she really didn’t care.
The previous year had been extremely difficult – her close friend had died of a heart attack and her uncle was killed in the line of duty — and she gained weight.
Perhaps, Teague thought, the weight loss reflected his improved mental and physical health. Never mind that she was working late nights as a bouncer and hadn’t changed her diet or exercise routine.
“I was like, ‘OK cool,'” said Teague, whose 6-foot-1 frame was about 275 pounds at its heaviest. “I didn’t even care to say, ‘Hey, your schedule is horrible, you barely sleep, you eat like shit.'”
But about a year later, Teague, freelance photographer and mother of two in Indianapolis, began to worry. She had lost 25 pounds, suffered severe, unexplained side pain while working on a Super Bowl shoot, and everything she ate was going through her. She had diarrhea up to seven times a day.
“I knew deep down ‘something was wrong,’ she said.
But Teague, now 30, said it took her six to seven months to defend herself at the doctor’s office to get a colonoscopy – despite her likely heritage of Lynch syndrome, a genetic condition linked to higher risk. multiple cancers, including colorectal cancer.
Once she finally had the procedure, Teague learned that she had a colon tumor the size of a baseball. She shared her story to raise awareness of Lynch Syndrome and the rising rates of colon cancer in young people, and to encourage people to speak up.
“Your body gives you signs before it shuts down,” Teague said, “so listen to it.”
Clinicians initially told her she looked healthy and likely had IBS
When Teague first went to the doctor, she said the nurse practitioner dismissed his weight loss, pain and diarrhea as irritable bowel syndrome and gave him medicine. A month later, Teague came back with the same list of symptoms, with bloody stools.
But because her blood work came back normal and, according to the nurse, she “looked healthy”, her request for a colonoscopy was denied. “We don’t give colonoscopies to patients under the age of 48,” Teague said, the nurse told her.
During subsequent visits to the doctor, Teague said he told the team that his mother, a kidney and breast cancer survivor, had Lynch syndrome. Teague had a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation, which leaves women with a 40% to 60% lifetime risk of developing colon cancer, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center.
But clinicians didn’t test her for the condition, she said, and just told her to “put the spicy food aside” and change her diet because a CT scan had found no problems.
It wasn’t until Teague learned that her father had recently had cancerous polyps removed from her colon and told her doctors that she had been rushed for a colonoscopy. “Suddenly everyone was like, ‘We gotta program you, we gotta program you,'” Teague said.
When she learned that the December 2020 procedure had indeed revealed cancer, Teague said, “I remember my world just shutting down. I didn’t hear anything, it was just quiet and cold.”
Teague was told she had Lynch Syndrome, which had a silver lining
Teague underwent surgery to remove more than 4.5 feet of his five-foot colon and fuse what remained with his small intestine.
The surgeon also recommended genetic testing for Lynch syndrome, which Teague learned she had. Estimates suggest about 1 in 300 people worldwide have the disease, but it’s likely “woefully underdiagnosed,” Dr. Matthew Yurgelun, director of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Lynch Syndrome Center, told Insider.
For people with Lynch syndrome, he said, “there are a multitude of tools available that can be extremely effective in reducing cancer, but we need to know that this additional risk exists in the first place.”
According Yale Medicinepeople who know they have Lynch syndrome usually start colon cancer screenings in their 20s and repeat them every year or two.
If Teague had been tested six years earlier when her mother was diagnosed, she believes doctors would have caught the cancer sooner and more, if not all, of her colon could have been spared. Without it, she can only eat a meal or two a day, has to go to the bathroom frequently, and usually only has loose stools. But, she said, “I’ll take this instead of having to change colostomy bags every day.”
Teague is also grateful, in a way, for having Lynch syndrome, as cancers that arise from it tend to be diagnosed at earlier stages – even if the patient doesn’t know they have the syndrome. of Lynch, Yurgelun said.
Before operating, Teague’s surgeon thought it was stage 4 cancer due to the size of the tumor. But Teague said she later learned it was Stage 2.
“Something that should have killed me didn’t because I have Lynch syndrome,” Teague said, adding that doctors told her she had been living with cancer for over a year.
Now Teague, who has a GoFundMe page to cover her medical expenses, is considering a hysterectomy since she is also at high risk for uterine cancer. But first, she must decide if she wants more children. Her daughters are now 10 and 6 and will be tested for Lynch when they turn 18. “If they have it, we’ll start putting the preventive screenings in place,” she said. “Otherwise they are ready to go.”
Bowel cancers are on the rise in young people
Over the past three decades, research has constantly found rising rates of colon cancer and related diseases like rectal cancer in young people.
People over the age of 50 are always at a greater risk of developing colon cancer. However, people under 50 are more often diagnosed with advanced, difficult-to-treat forms of the disease.
Bowel cancers can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms – such as abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue – are common with conditions such as hemorrhoids, inflammatory bowel disease or inflammatory bowel disease. irritable bowel.
“It’s very clear that signs and symptoms that could indicate colorectal cancer in people under 50, and especially rectal bleeding, should be promptly evaluated by a healthcare professional and not dismissed as ‘just hemorrhoids’ or ‘normal’,” said Dr. David Greenwald. , professor of medicine and gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has already told Insider.
If caught early, colon cancer is very treatable and the five-year relative survival rate is around 90% if the cancer does not spread. according to the American Cancer Society.
“I have so many ideas and projects that I want to champion, I feel a bit discouraged in this big old world, will my voice really be the right one?” said Teague. “But someone has to” encourage clinicians to consider family history, medical history and symptoms, not just dismiss patients because of their age, she said.
Getting tested, Teague said, can at least give people “peace of mind.”