Listening to her body saved her life
There’s that feeling that something just isn’t right. Oftentimes it’s nothing or it’s ignored, but sometimes, listening to your body can save your life.
Angella Drexler, a pediatric surgery nurse in Chicago, found the latter to be true after finding blood in her stool. Drexler made an appointment with her primary care physician and was referred for a colonoscopy with Dr. Arun Ohri with the Digestive Health Institute at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
“It’s kind of ironic, but it seems like health care workers, even more than others, tend to ignore their own symptoms,” says Drexler. “I guess it’s because we’re exposed to these things all the time. We think it’s not a big deal — these symptoms affect our patients, but not us.”
During the colonoscopy, Dr. Ohri found a large polyp and the biopsy confirmed Drexler had colon cancer. She was 39 years old.
Ten percent of colon cancers are found in people younger than 50 years old, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance. However, recent studies show colon cancer rates are declining for older adults, but increasing for men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
“Even though colon cancer is relatively rare in younger people, it’s important to listen to your body, as Angella did,” says Dr. Mebea Aklilu, Drexler’s medical oncologist at Illinois Masonic’s Cancer Institute. “As a general rule, if you’re healthy and something suddenly changes — maybe you could always run a few miles and suddenly you can’t — see your doctor. And, check in with your primary care physician if you notice changes in your bowel habits, rectal bleeding, persistent pain or unexplained weight loss.”
About two weeks after her diagnosis, Drexler had colon resection surgery that removed a portion of her colon. She also learned that the cancer had spread to three of her lymph nodes, meaning she had stage 3 colon cancer.
Stage 3 colon cancer can be cured by surgery alone about 50 percent of the time, says Dr. Aklilu. When you add chemotherapy, the cure rate increases to between 66 to 70 percent.
Chemotherapy was the clear next step for Drexler, who underwent six months of treatment.
“When I have younger patients like Angella, it’s hard to separate yourself from the situation — you see yourself in that patient,” says Dr. Aklilu. “One major goal I have with my younger patients is to help them deal with the emotional impact of cancer and fears that they are having. This is something she has to think about for the rest of her life.”
Dr. Aklilu recommends that when younger people are diagnosed with colon cancer they have genetic testing. In Drexler’s case, no genetic factors were identified.
“When no factors are identified, that doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer is not genetic,” Dr. Aklilu says. “But, if a certain gene is identified, the patient can make sure their family members are aware and they can get appropriate testing and screenings.”
Today, Drexler is in remission.
She says she’s feeling good and relieved that her cancer is gone, but her diagnosis and treatment changed her outlook and had an impact on her loved ones.
“My friends and family are definitely more aware now — my mom just had a colonoscopy, and I’m glad she’s being proactive about her health,” Drexler says. “It obviously had a big impact on me, too. I listen to my body more now. I was always a compassionate nurse, but being on the patient side, it made me an even more compassionate nurse.”
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