Colon cancer patient to millennials: ‘Be your own advocate’

Study found more millennials and Gen Xers being diagnosed with colorectal cancer

Heidi Blackrick was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was 26, but she says she started noticing symptoms when she was 24. (WOOD)
Heidi Blackrick was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was 26, but she says she started noticing symptoms when she was 24. (WOOD)

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — Heidi Blackrick is grateful to be living proof instead of a fatal statistic.

She was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was 26, but she says she started noticing symptoms when she was 24. She thinks that the cancer could have been caught sooner, saying medical professionals didn’t recognize the signs because she was so young.

“I went into the emergency room. I was noticing some abnormalities within my stomach, some bowel movements. I noticed some blood. And that’s alarming. Any time there’s blood, it’s alarming,” Blackrick, now 27, told 24 Hour News 8 on Thursday.

Doctors told Blackrick it was probably irritable bowel syndrome or hemorrhoids. But as the symptoms got worse, she knew something was wrong with her body. So she fought to get a colonoscopy, which her insurance company wouldn’t cover because she was much younger than the screening age which starts at 50.

“The doctor was not alarmed at all. He basically said, ‘We see this all the time and it’s something you ate,’” Blackrick said.

Then she got the call. She had cancer.

“Instantly, I started crying. You just feel so like helpless at that moment,” Blackrick said.

She had 600 hours of chemotherapy over eight months. Now she’s in remission after battling stage III colon cancer. Blackrick has been wearing a variety of wigs as her hair grows back, though she says her fiancé likes her without them because it shows what she’s been through and her strength.

Blackrick’s not alone. A study by the American Cancer Society released earlier this week found a growing number of millennials and Gen Xers are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, which is traditionally known for affecting adults over the age of 50.

Colorectal Cancer Incidence Patterns in the United States, 1974–2013

Officials at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center say 11 percent of their patients with rectal and colon cancer are under 50.

“We have to think about it and we have to be more urgent about getting those people in to get a colonoscopy,” said Spectrum Health Cancer Center Chief Judy Smith.

Smith says medical professionals have to shift how they assess symptoms of colon and rectal cancer.

“It’s not that they didn’t believe her. They didn’t believe that the odds that were so long, such a long shot would be that one person,” Smith said.

She also said she thinks the recommended screening age — currently 50 — may need to be lowered as a result of the increased number of young adults being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

Blackrick said she doesn’t want others who are battling the disease, especially young patients, to feel alone, which is why she decided to share her story with 24 Hour News 8.

Blackrick’s cancer video diary

She also wants her story to serve as a reminder to speak up if you notice something is wrong because you are the one who knows your body the best.

“I actually read this thing where it said it’s going the best booty call you ever make to your doctor because it’s true. I mean if you’re experiencing and it’s not normal you have to be your own advocate,” Blackrick said.

The American Cancer Society says potential causes of the increase in colorectal cancer among younger adults include obesity, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.

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