After being diagnosed with colon cancer in her 30s, Carolina Saenz reflects on an early sign she missed.
In her late 30s, Carolina Saenz was not on a look out for signs of colon cancer. That’s why when she began seeing small amounts of blood in her stool, she didn’t immediately seek out medical attention.
“I thought this was a disease that only affected people in their 70s and 80s. No one prepared me for the possibility that a young person could have colon cancer,” Carolina said.
It took a sudden burst of pain in her stomach and a trip to Englewood Health’s Emergency Department for Carolina to have her first colonoscopy. When the results came back, it was confirmed: she had a tumor in her colon roughly 7 centimeters in size.
“There are around 106,000 patients diagnosed with colon cancer each year and, recently, we’re seeing a shift towards an early onset of colon cancer,” said Minaxi P. Jhawer, MD, chief of hematology/oncology at Englewood Health and the associate medical director of the Lefcourt Family Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center. She is also the doctor who would go on to treat Carolina’s cancer.
According to Dr. Jhawer, the best thing young people can do is pay attention to their bodies and see a doctor if something seems off. “It’s good for all of us to remember that we have methods to screen patients before they ever have symptoms and, if colon cancer is identified in an early stage, it’s curable almost 80 to 90 percent of the time,” Dr. Jhawer said.
When Carolina was diagnosed with colon cancer, she recalls her first thoughts being not about herself, but about how she could possibly break the news to her son, who was just turning 10-years-old at the time.
“I never used the word cancer with him. I told him that mommy has bad cells, and that the chemotherapy is going to kill those cells so that mommy can get better,” Carolina said.
It would take surgery to remove 14 centimeters of her colon and 12 rounds of chemotherapy administered over the course of a year, but Carolina did eventually get better. And when she did, she began to reflect on the acts of kindness she’d received during what she describes as one of the darkest years of her life.
“They treat you so well. The ladies in the infusion center brought me blankets, water, and juice. They connected me to my favorite TV shows—whatever I needed,” Carolina said. “Chemotherapy days can be long days. If you wanted to craft a bracelet with beads, if you wanted to color mandalas with crayon, if you wanted to pet an emotional support dog, they would make it happen for you.”
Of Dr. Jhawer, Carolina recalls her focus on Carolina and her son’s future after treatment being a source of great comfort. “She was always looking forward, talking about my next birthday, my next cat scan,” Carolina said. “She’s there for you. She’ll explain something to you again and again. She’ll give you a comfort that will carry you through the toughest times.”
Today, Carolina has passed an important personal milestone: she’s been cancer free for over five years. Her son, now 15 years of age, has a more mature understanding of what his mom went through all those years ago and it’s one of the reasons he helps his school raise money for St. Jude’s each year.
“Having cancer and being a cancer survivor is a roller coaster. I’m aware of my body in a way I wasn’t before. I’m watchful for anything abnormal, anything different,” Carolina said. “All I can say is that I take this thing one day at a time, but I am so thankful to be alive right now.
Posted March 30, 2022