When Diana Zepeda of Washington, D.C., started experiencing stomach and digestive problems, she assumed she had food poisoning.
“I thought to myself — ‘I guess I shouldn’t eat sushi that was sitting in someone’s car for 40 minutes,” she said. “My symptoms didn’t get better — they got worse.”
“I became nauseous and had severe abdominal cramps and nothing came out. I couldn’t stop vomiting.” That’s when she knew something was wrong and that she needed to go to a doctor. There, she received shocking news. She had stage 4 colon cancer at just 34 years old.
“I was definitely in disbelief. I don’t have a family history,” Zepeda said. “After the initial shock and disbelief, my first thoughts were, ‘What did I do wrong to get this?’ Because I think everyone thinks of colon cancer as an old people’s disease. “I thought, ‘Was it all the microwaved Pop-Tarts I ate in college? Or all the microwave Lean Cuisines? Like, what did I do to cause this?'”
Doctors are baffled as well because more young people are suffering from the illness than ever before.
“It is unbelievable. We don’t know why this is happening,” said Michael Sapienza, chief executive officer of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.
“It is the unknown that is bugging us. We are learning more and more how a younger version is different. This younger crowd is … very active with good eating, good health habits. There is something going on that we don’t yet understand,” added Dr. John Marshall, director of the Ruesch Center for Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Since her diagnosis, Zepeda has undergone six months of chemotherapy. She recently finished her final treatment, and though she has an upcoming surgery and won’t officially be in remission for another few years, she has hope for her future. She also hopes that by sharing her story, she’ll encourage others to get checked regularly by their doctors.
“I have a chance to be completely cured,” she said. “There is nothing lucky about getting cancer, but I still feel like I am incredibly lucky. Stop self-diagnosing and please go to the doctor.”