The fighter

When Stephanie Luke noticed bleeding after using the restroom, she assumed it was caused by hemorrhoids. She struggled with hemorrhoids in the past and wasn’t worried. But a month later, she still saw blood.

“I thought it would go away, like always,” she said, “When it didn’t, I decided I needed to get it checked out.”

Her gastroenterologist, Dr. Bhavtosh Dedania of Gastroenterology Center of Tampa Bay, recommended a colonoscopy – an exam used to detect changes or abnormalities in the colon and rectum. What he saw projected from the miniature scope camera worried him, and a pathology report confirmed his suspicions.

Stephanie, a 38-year-old mother of two, was diagnosed with Stage II colorectal cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S. and the second most common cause of cancer deaths. While the rate of people being diagnosed with each year has dropped overall, the incidence rates in people younger than 55 have increased in recent years. An estimated 150,000 people were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2020.

“My first thought was, what’s next? What can we do?” Stephanie said.

Stephanie balances a busy schedule, taking care of her two children and working full-time as an ultrasound technologist. There wasn’t time for self-pity – she geared up to battle the disease.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more young patients battling this disease,” said Dr. Dedania. “That’s why it’s absolutely crucial for our communities to be informed about risk factors and subtle signs that something may be wrong.”

Stephanie doesn’t have a known family history of colorectal cancer (after the diagnosis, she paid for a genetic test to be certain) and she considered herself to be healthy before the diagnosis. Diabetes runs in her family, so she always limited her sugar consumption.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

  • Family history
  • Excessive alcohol or smoking usage
  • Obesity
  • Certain diets
  • Racial or ethnic background
  • Age 45 or above

Other than bloody stool, Stephanie displayed no other symptoms.

“Many patients don’t have symptoms other than a change in bowel habits, occasional bleeding and abdominal pain, which can be very non-specific,” said Dr. Dedania. “That’s one of the reasons why this cancer is scary. In Stephanie’s case, she’s lucky that the bleeding drew her attention; otherwise, it may have gone undetected until a much later stage or until she underwent her routine screening colonoscopy at age 45.”

Signs of colorectal cancer can include:

  • Blood in or on stool
  • Vague stomach pain, aches, or cramps
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Jaundice in late stages

And occasionally, colorectal patients are entirely asymptomatic – especially in early stages

Now, Stephanie is undergoing radiation and taking chemotherapy pills. After the mass is reduced in size, she will undergo surgery followed by chemo infusions.

Throughout this process, she is staying positive. Her mother, her boyfriend and his family, and her children – ages 12 and 15 – are her support system. She’s also encouraging others to watch out for warning signs and, even if they don’t have symptoms, to get screened starting at age 45.

“I’m blessed to have gone and seen Dr. Dedania; I can’t imagine what it would been if I had just let it go or if he had agreed with me that it was hemorrhoids,” Stephanie said. “Because I’m only 38! I never would have expected it.”

For now, she continues to fight.