Laura Webb was just 32 years old and training for an Ironman competition when she learned she had colon cancer.
Pain in her lower abdomen had taken her to several doctors, who ordered a variety of tests. She eventually went to a gastroenterologist who ordered a colonoscopy, not really expecting to find anything wrong.
"I was athletic, don't smoke, have an occasional cocktail and cheeseburger, but it was the last thing I expected to hear," said Webb, who is 41 now and living in Tampa.
A few days later, she learned that the cancer had spread to her liver. Her doctors recommended surgery to remove the primary colon tumor, six months of chemotherapy, and the drug Avastin, a tumor-starving therapy that blocks the blood supply to any remaining tumors so they can't grow.
"I had the flexibility to work through treatment," said Webb, who owns her own insurance agency. "I never missed a day of work."
Doctors can't say why Webb, an otherwise healthy young woman with no family history of the disease, developed colon cancer. The most common risk factors are race — African-Americans have the highest colorectal cancer incidence and deaths in the United States — being overweight or obese; being inactive; eating lots of red and processed meats, especially if cooked at high temperatures; smoking and heavy alcohol use.
Those over 50 also are at higher risk, which is why the American Cancer Society recommends screening starting at 50, or earlier if a person has other risk factors.
Webb shares her story to encourage others to get screened and to stop being afraid of the colonoscopy preparation process, which involves drinking laxative-laced beverages the day before and staying close to a bathroom until test time.
"Go get your scope done," she tells everyone who will listen. "If everything is okay, most don't have to go back for 10 years. It's one day of discomfort. It's not fun, just do it."
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 95,000 new cases of colon cancer and more than 39,000 new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed this year — and that more than 49,000 Americans will die from colorectal cancer.
Because of aggressive screening campaigns, earlier diagnosis and improved treatment, the society estimates there are more than 1 million colon cancer survivors in the country today. Webb counts herself lucky to be among them.
If there is a lesson to be learned from her experience, it's to question and check out any symptoms early. For eight months to a year before her diagnosis, Webb noticed blood in her stool from time to time. Because of the timing of those findings, she thought the blood was associated with her menstrual cycle. She decided to wait until her annual gynecologic doctor's appointment to bring it up. By that time, she also had developed the persistent abdominal pain.
Common signs and symptoms of colon cancer include belly pain; blood in the stool; changes in bowel habits, such as constipation, diarrhea and narrow stools; and unexplained weight loss.
Since Webb's diagnosis in 2007, doctors have twice found tumors in her lungs. In January 2015, they removed a golf ball-sized mass and part of her left lung.
As usual, she didn't let that stop her. Eight months later, Webb completed a half Ironman competition in Georgia. And in December 2015, she climbed the Inca Trail in Peru.
"It's a preventable cancer," she said, noting that polyps found during a colonoscopy can be removed before they develop into cancer. "It makes me sad that people choose not to do it, and then it turns into something really serious. Taking that small bit of discomfort can make a big difference."
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]