34 and Living With Colon Cancer

At 34, I had no obvious symptoms or family history of colon cancer. My body was telling me something was wrong and compelled me to push for more tests to reach a diagnosis. Now every day I get up and learn to be comfortable living in the uncomfortable. With more screenings happening earlier, you may never have to.

| 9 min read
Anna Payne headshot
Anna Payne
Anna Payne with a mask sitting in a hospital chair.

For 34 years, I’ve choked down close to 50 pills as part of a daily regimen to manage my cystic fibrosis. But the one bitter pill I wasn’t prepared to swallow was when I was told “you have stage IV colon cancer.

I think about my doctor’s words now as I grieve the life I almost got to have, one that seems like a distant dream. The nightmare call came less than two years after I started Trikafta®, a life-changing drug that turned a death sentence into a chronic illness that can be managed with medications and treatments.

For the first time in a long time, I had hope. Hope for a future of a “healthy” life. I had big dreams and a lot of things I wanted to accomplish. Now those things are on hold because my future holds so much doubt. But I still cling to the hope that things will get better -- and I’m committed to helping other cystic fibrosis survivors from swallowing the same bitter pill.

Known as the “silent cancer,” colorectal cancer remains the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. among the general population, partly because patients report experiencing few or no symptoms. There’ are about 70,000 people worldwide living with cystic fibrosis, and we’re at five to 10 times greater risk for developing colorectal cancer. What makes us especially vulnerable is that symptoms can and often do mimic issues that CF survivors experience daily. More research is needed to determine exactly why we’re at such elevated risk for the disease, but it’s believed to be linked to a mutation in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator gene.

To combat this silent disease, screenings can prevent about 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths. For the general population, screenings are recommended at age 45. For people with CF, the age is 40. But when you discover cancer at stage 4, it is too late to cut out a polyp and move on.

I’m 34 years old, had few symptoms and no known family history.

Colon cancer grows slowly, and it’s possible it’s been in me for years. I sensed something was wrong over the summer, because of intuition more than symptoms. I had minor digestive issues, which I thought were caused by something I ate. They persisted, and I second-guessed myself. Trikafta helped tip me off because it worked so well that I was not used to these changes in my digestive system.

In June, I found a mass in my groin, the size of a dime. Doctors ordered an ultrasound, which was inconclusive. An appointment with a general surgeon took weeks to get, and in that time the lump grew to the size of a walnut. I went to my CF care team for help. They found a bowel blockage -- a common condition for those with cystic fibrosis known as Distal Intestinal Obstruction Syndrome, or DIOS. We hoped a colon cleanse would clear the blockage, but deep down I knew it was something more serious. 

I implored the doctors for help and was eventually admitted to the hospital for a CAT scan. The tumor didn’t initially show up on the scan because my bowels were inflamed from the cleanse.

Four more days went by before the doctors biopsied the groin mass, something I asked for on the second day. At first, the doctors seemed to dismiss the idea, thinking I was too young. A week after the biopsy came the bad news. I burst into tears. My CF team contacted an oncologist and arranged for an appointment for the next day. A PET scan revealed the cancer spread to other organs, including my liver, ovaries, and lymph nodes. My liver has more than 14 tumors or lesions, which was heartbreaking to hear.

I feel like I’m just cancer, not Anna anymore, transformed back into that sick, vulnerable girl who spent many nights curled up in a hospital bed, unsure of her future.

For years, I’ve been involved in local politics, serving as a supervisor of my local township government board and have aspired to run for Congress. As I grew more financially stable in my 30s, I planned to travel across the globe, go to Australia and hold a koala bear and take in the sun-drenched islands of Costa Rica, but all that has been put on pause.

I started with immunotherapy, but my cancer did not respond to those treatments. I’ve since begun chemotherapy done every other week over three days and requiring me to be outfitted with a take-home pump that leaves me fatigued and immunocompromised. That also means I’m more susceptible to infections and viruses that can be deadly for those with CF.

Five times a week, I’m hooked up at home to a pole with IV fluids to help me re-hydrate and recover. Naturally, that’s required me to adjust my social life, relying on a network of friends who keep me company at my condo. I play cards -- Rummy is my favorite -- and have developed an affinity for puzzles. Although after spending five hours on a 500-piece puzzle I was quite annoyed to find it was missing a piece.

Work has taken a backseat, but my employer remains supportive and helpful, allowing me to work remotely -- as much as I’m able. Colleagues, who I miss interacting with dearly, have taken up the load in my absence. I’ve even come to miss the 45-minute commute to the office and stopping each morning to get a hot tea -- no lemon or sugar -- at Dunkin’.

Simple joys like eating -- which we all take for granted -- are now a chore. I eat for calories, six small meals a day, not pleasure. I changed my diet drastically, forcing myself to learn just how many foods contain fiber. It has caused me to lose about 20 pounds off my already-slight frame. I no longer enjoy foods I’d grown up eating, almost ritually, such as macaroni and cheese and steak. As a result, I’ve stocked up on Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks, and probably have enough boxes in my house to qualify as a cereal killer.

My platinum blonde hair, with blue streaks, is gone. That came as another shocker, as the chemotherapy doesn’t cause hair loss in most colorectal cancer patients. To deal with the hurt and depression of losing my locks, I’ve turned my room into a Hollywood-style dressing suite, equipped with multiple wigs that allow me to feel like a different superstar each day. Now that it’s getting colder, knitted hats are a must to keep my cute bald head warm. But I’ve often scrapped the hats in favor of the bald look so I can emulate my idol, The Rock. I remember watching him as a little girl every Thursday night on Smackdown on the small television set in my room at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. Amazingly, The Rock learned about my diagnosis and put together a heartfelt video wishing me luck as I fight this disease. It was viewed millions of times on his Instagram page, and allowed me to feel less isolated, being connected virtually to so many people who channeled their positivity toward me from the comfort of my couch.

Recently, some of the most renowned experts met virtually for the North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference. The big takeaway from that was the increase in life expectancy for cystic fibrosis survivors, a nine-year jump to 50 years old, due largely to advances in medicine and treatments. As science improves and evolves, our thinking must also. Screenings must become a normal routine for cystic fibrosis survivors. The sooner the better. My hope is that the screening recommendation gets lowered to 30. But you don’t have to wait for that to happen before listening to your body.

If your body is telling you something, go and get screened. Be your own vociferous advocate. I had zero symptoms until stage four, so please talk to your doctor about getting screened before 40.

I’m 34 right now and am living in a world of uncertainty. There’s no set plan, timeline, end date or outcome for me. But every day I’ll get up and live here, regardless of what gets thrown at me. I’ll learn to be comfortable living in the uncomfortable. With more screenings happening earlier, you may never have to.

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Anna, 34, lives with her beloved bernedoodle, Roman, in Middletown Township, Pa, where she serves on the Board of Supervisors. She was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth and has spent her life advocating for those with the disease, serving as vice chair of the Pennsylvania Rare Disease Advisory Council and co-founder of the Bucks County Cystic Fibrosis Alliance. Anna loves Bernie Sanders, aspires to run for higher office, has two life-size cutouts of her idol, The Rock, inside her condo, swears on comedian Lewis Black (pun intended), and has an edgy and eclectic taste for rap music that makes her mother uncomfortably blush. 

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