A teacher diagnosed with colon cancer at age 36 had only one noticeable symptom

By | March 28, 2024

It was June 2020, and Stefania Frost’s family had just gathered for a barbecue for the first time since the pandemic began. But the next day, Frost, a second-grade teacher in Waltham, Massachusetts, noticed pain in her right side.

“I thought it was something I ate or some kind of stomach flu going around,” Frost, 40, tells TODAY.com. However, about a week later the pain had not gone away, so she made an appointment with the doctor.

Frost’s doctor thought the pain might be a sign of appendicitis and sent her for imaging, which showed inflammation around her colon. Frost was given a course of antibiotics, but her doctor also sent her for a colonoscopy. The pain subsided over the next few days, but Frost still went for the colonoscopy the following week – and got shocking results.

“Afterwards the doctor spoke to me,” she recalls. “I just woke up and they said there was a tumor in the colon.”

Due to protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, Frost was unable to host her husband and daughter in the room. “It was very difficult and very confusing,” she says.

Second grade teacher Stefania Frost was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer at the age of 36. (Courtesy of Stefania Frost)

Second grade teacher Stefania Frost was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer at the age of 36. (Courtesy of Stefania Frost)

Frost was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes.

The diagnosis came as a total surprise to Frost, who was 36 at the time and had only one noticeable symptom: abdominal pain.

She had no other gastrointestinal problems or blood in her stool, she says. Her grandfather died of colon cancer and her mother and uncle received extra screening as a result, “but they never said anything about the grandchildren,” she explains. (Genetic testing later showed that her cancer was not hereditary.)

In mid-July, just weeks after the barbecue, Frost underwent surgery to remove the tumor in her colon and also had 49 lymph nodes removed.

Unfortunately, “more often than not” younger patients are diagnosed with colorectal cancer at a later stage, says Dr. Aparna Parikh, Frost’s oncologist and medical director of the Center for Young Adult Colorectal Cancer at Mass General Brigham, told TODAY.com.

Researchers are still trying to understand the recent rise in colorectal cancer rates in people under 50 — and why they are so often diagnosed with more advanced diseases, Parikh says.

For some, “there is a big diagnostic delay,” she explains. It’s not uncommon for patients to assume or be told by their doctor that they’re dealing with something like hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome, Parikh says, even if they have symptoms that could indicate colorectal cancer.

According to Parikh, possible signs of colon cancer that you should not ignore include:

The treatment went well, but side effects and fertility problems still weighed on Frost.

After diagnosis, Frost would have to undergo chemotherapy. “But the problem was that I wanted to get pregnant again,” she says.

At the time, her friends were having their second children or were pregnant, and Frost was ready for a second child. So before starting chemotherapy, Frost went through a cycle of egg retrieval in hopes of getting embryos.

“I only have one (embryo),” she says, but the goal of getting pregnant again got her through three months of intensive chemotherapy.

Frost with her husband and 5-year-old daughter.  (Courtesy of Stefania Frost)Frost with her husband and 5-year-old daughter.  (Courtesy of Stefania Frost)

Frost with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. (Courtesy of Stefania Frost)

She felt cold and her hands were numb from the side effects, and she couldn’t drink anything cold. Her infusions took place in the fall of 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so “I had to be alone, so that was hard too,” Frost says. Because of the surgery, “I couldn’t lift my daughter,” Frost recalled, so her mother would take her away for the day. “It was hard not having that relationship.”

As difficult as the treatment was, “I just really wanted to get pregnant,” Frost recalls. “My motivation was like, ‘I’m going to get through this, I’m going to do it and then I’m going to get pregnant.'”

Her chemotherapy ended in November, and when January arrived, Frost and her husband decided to try to implant the embryo.

“That wasn’t necessary,” says Frost, attributing it to reduced ovarian reserve, which means fewer healthy eggs in the ovaries, and the effects of chemotherapy.

There are multiple factors at play when it comes to fertility and cancer treatment, says Dr. Parikh, including a patient’s baseline ovarian reserve and the specific treatments he or she needs. She said radiation, which is usually needed to treat rectal cancer, can reduce fertility, as can some types of chemotherapy.

“We advise people that the chemotherapy for colon cancer that we use, especially if we use a more aggressive chemotherapy, can cause infertility,” Parikh explains, “but it is not a guarantee.”

Frost ended up undergoing infertility treatment for about two years. “I went through a few cycles of IVF (and) IUI and never got pregnant,” says Frost. “That was really hard for me.”

“Surround yourself with positivity.”

Today, Frost is almost four years removed from her colon cancer diagnosis and has her blood tested regularly to check for the possibility of a recurrence as part of a clinical trial. So far, she has remained cancer-free, but she also has to deal with a complex set of emotions.

“I’m so happy that I’m doing well, I’m recovering and I’m cancer-free,” she says. “But I have to deal with not having another baby.” Added to this is the inevitable fear about the possibility of her cancer coming back. “Every time I get a scan it’s scary,” says Frost.

When times are tough or she’s reminded of her fertility issues, Frost says she focuses on positivity and recommends others “surround yourself with positive people.”

“I went through chemotherapy thinking, ‘I can do this. This is not going to take over my life,'” she says. At the same time, “It’s okay to cry,” she says, “and there are days when I still cry.”

Frost also encourages her friends to take their health seriously. “I try to tell other people, especially my friends, ‘Go get colonoscopies when you’re 45,’” she says. Or if they’re concerned about symptoms, she tells them to get to the doctor quickly instead of waiting.

Parikh agrees: “Listen to your body. And stand up for yourself if you’re unsure.”

This article was originally published on TODAY.com

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