A woman who lost 25 pounds without dieting or exercising had colon cancer

A woman who lost 25 pounds without dieting or exercising had colon cancer

  • Ashley Teague, now 30, experienced unexplained weight loss, diarrhea and bloody stools for months.
  • She said her doctors denied her requests for a colonoscopy 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 didn’t really 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 put on a little weight.

Perhaps, Teague thought, the weight loss reflected her improved mental and physical health. Never mind that she worked late nights as a bouncer and didn’t change her diet or exercise routine.

“I was like, ‘OK cool,'” said Teague, whose 6-foot-1 frame ballooned to about 275 pounds at his heaviest. “I wasn’t even paying attention to, ‘Hey, your schedule is terrible, you’re barely sleeping, you’re eating like crap.’

But about a year later, Teague, freelance photographer and mother of two in Indianapolis, began to worry. She lost 25 pounds, suffered severe and unexplained pain in her side while working the Super Bowl, and everything she ate went right through her. She had diarrhea up to seven times a day.

“I knew deep down” that something was wrong, she said.

But Teague, now 30, said it took six to seven months of advocacy at the doctor’s office to get her colonoscopy approved — despite her likely inheritance of Lynch syndrome, a genetic condition associated with a higher risk of multiple cancers, including colorectal cancer.

After finally undergoing the procedure, Teague learned she had a tumor in her colon 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 for themselves.

“Your body is giving you signs before it shuts down,” Teague said, “so listen to it.”

Clinicians first told her she looked healthy and probably had IBS

When Teague first went to the doctor, the nurse said dismissed her weight loss, pain and diarrhea as irritable bowel syndrome and gave her medicine. A month later, Teague returned with the same list of symptoms, along with bloody stools.

But because her blood work came back normal and, as the nurse said, she “looked healthy,” her request for a colonoscopy was denied. “We don’t give colonoscopies to patients under 48,” Teague said the nurse told her.

During subsequent doctor visits, Teague said she told the team that her mom, a kidney and breast cancer survivor, had Lynch syndrome. Teague had a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation, which gives women a 40% to 60% lifetime risk of developing colon cancer, MD Anderson Cancer Center.

But clinicians didn’t test her for the condition, she said, only telling her to “lay off the spicy food” and change her diet because the CT scan revealed no problems.

It wasn’t until Teague learned that her father had recently had a cancerous polyp removed from his colon that she told her doctors that she quickly moved on to a colonoscopy. “All of a sudden, everybody was going, ‘We’ve got to schedule you, we’ve got to schedule you,'” Teague said.

When she learned that the December 2020 procedure had indeed detected cancer, Teague said, “I remember my world just stopped. I didn’t hear anything, it was just quiet and cold.”

Teague learned she had Lynch syndrome, which had a silver lining

Teague underwent surgery to remove more than 4 and a half feet of her five-foot colon and fuse what was left with her small intestine.

Ashley Teague in the hospital

Ashley Teague in the hospital.

Ashley Teague

The surgeon also recommended genetic screening for Lynch syndrome, which Teague learned she had. Estimates suggest that about 1 in 300 people worldwide have the condition, but it’s likely “woefully underdiagnosed,” Dr. Matthew Yurgelun, director of the Lynch Syndrome Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

For people with Lynch syndrome, he said, “there are tons of tools available that can be extremely effective in reducing cancer, but we have to know that that additional risk is there in the first place.”

According to Yale MedicinePeople who know they have Lynch syndrome usually start colon cancer screenings in their twenties and repeat them every year or two.

If Teague had been tested six years earlier when her mom was diagnosed, she thinks doctors would have caught the cancer sooner and more, if not all, of her colon could have been spared. Without it, he can only digest one or two meals a day, has to go to the bathroom often, and usually only has a rare stool. But, she said, “I’ll take it instead of changing my colostomy bag every day.”

Teague is also thankful, in a way, that she has Lynch syndrome because cancers that develop from it are usually diagnosed at an earlier stage — even if the patient doesn’t know they have Lynch syndrome, Yurgelun said.

Before the surgery, Teague’s surgeon thought it was stage 4 cancer because of 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 more than a year.

Now, Teague, who has a GoFundMe page to meet her medical expenses, she is considering a hysterectomy because she is also at high risk for uterine cancer. But first she has to decide if she wants more children. Her girls are now 10 and 6, and will be tested for Lynch when they turn 18. “If they have it, we’ll start setting up preventive screenings,” she said. “If not, they’re ready to go.”

Bowel cancer is on the rise in young people

Over the past three decades, research has consistently revealed rising rates of colon cancer and related diseases such as rectal cancer among younger people.

People over the age of 50 are still at a higher risk of developing colon cancer overall. However, people under the age of 50 are more often diagnosed with advanced forms of the disease that are difficult to treat.

Bowel cancer can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms – such as abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhoea, weight loss and fatigue – are common with diseases such as hemorrhoids, inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome.

“It is very clear that a healthcare professional should immediately evaluate signs and symptoms that may indicate colorectal cancer in the under-50s, especially rectal bleeding, and not dismiss them as ‘just hemorrhoids’ or ‘normal,'” Dr. David Greenwald, professor of medicine and gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, previously told the Insider.

If caught early, colon cancer is highly curable, and the five-year relative survival rate is about 90% if the cancer does not spread. according to the American Cancer Society.

“I have so many ideas and plans that I want to champion, I feel a little discouraged in this grand old world, will my voice really be the one?” Teague said. But someone needs to encourage clinicians to consider family history, medical history and symptoms, and not just dismiss patients because of their age, she said.

The vetting, Teague said, can at least give people “peace of mind.”

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