When Kierstyn Roberts, then 21, began experiencing chest pains last fall, she thought she was stressed. It made sense: I was a full-time math student and resident assistant at Indiana University during a pandemic. When her chest pain intensified, she visited the hospital and learned that anxiety wasn’t the culprit – she had stage 4 colon cancer.
“I thought it was something they could medicate me for, that it would be an easy fix and then I would go back to being a normal 21-year-old,” Roberts, now 22, of Indianapolis told TODAY. “The more the doctor explained things to me, the more scared I became. I thought I was going to die “.
Roberts is sharing her story to encourage others to be mindful of their bodies and seek treatment if something feels wrong.
“Pay attention to what your body tells you,” he said. “I’m not saying I ignored mine. He just didn’t have enough information. “
Pain and pressure in the chest
In September 2020, Roberts began experiencing tightness in his chest, which was “swollen to the point where it felt like something was pressing against my rib cage.” But it happened so randomly that she wasn’t sure if it was a problem. Then the pressure in his chest intensified on the right side of his body.
“Whenever I spoke, laughed, stretched, coughed or something like that, I felt a sharp pain instantly,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep for a while without my side hurting and I was strong enough to know that it wasn’t a pain that I could really ignore.”
Roberts visited a local urgent care clinic and the doctor suspected that the college food was inflaming Roberts’ gallbladder and gave him medicine to ease the discomfort.
“I felt better in the morning. I was able to get out of bed, take my medication, and get through the day. But there were times when I still felt that feeling of pressure, “he said. “The acute pain was no longer a problem, but it got to a point where my stomach felt full.”
On September 13, he woke up with severe chest pains as he struggled to breathe.
“That’s where I got really worried,” Roberts said. “At twenty-one, their chest doesn’t hurt like that. That is not something that is normal. “
She visited another urgent care clinic and the doctor told her that she was fine and that there was little that could be done. Roberts didn’t believe it.
“Chest pain is a very serious thing,” she said. “When I was talking to him, he said, ‘Well, for a 21-year-old you shouldn’t have chest pain. So you may be overwhelmed. ‘
Stunned, Roberts went to the emergency room for a second opinion.
“I knew for myself by the way I felt that there had to be something that could be done,” she said.
Doctors in the emergency room performed blood and urine tests and took a CT scan of his chest. Blood and urine tests were normal.
“A part of me knew something else was going on because I kept asking if I could eat,” she said, adding that the nurse kept saying they had to wait. “I kept having this feeling that maybe there is a reason.”
When the doctors arrived, he finally understood why.
“They found multiple tumors in my liver and in my colon,” he said. “They did not confirm that it was cancerous. They just said they found a lot of tumors. “
After the colonoscopy, Roberts learned that he had stage 4 colon cancer.
“My mind went blank,” he said. “I thought it was a joke. I literally thought he was joking or trying to scare me unnecessarily … That might not make sense, but that’s what my brain was thinking. “
Colon cancer and young people
Like many people, Roberts thought of colon cancer as an “old man’s disease.” But colorectal cancer is increasing in younger people. In 2020, about 18,000 people under the age of 50 were diagnosed with colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Since the mid-1980s, adults ages 20 to 39 have experienced an increase in rates of colorectal cancer. For people ages 40 to 54, rates have been on the rise since the mid-1990s.
The American Cancer Society notes that blacks experience colorectal cancer at approximately 20% higher rates than non-Hispanic whites, and the death rate is nearly 40% higher.
Colon cancer symptoms include:
- Lack of iron
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in the stool
- Weakness or fatigue
- Abdominal pain
- Narrow stools, diarrhea, or constipation
- Urgent need to defecate
- Unexplained weight loss
Life with stage 4 cancer
Roberts’ doctor recommended intense chemotherapy to shrink the tumors, and she dropped out of school during the fall semester to focus on her health. Sometimes it feels overwhelming.
“You go from living your life, going to college, thinking you’re going to graduate, getting a job, like all these things that are normal, and then he hits you with this rock,” Roberts said. “You have colon cancer and it is not just colon cancer, it is stage 4. It is not something that has been easy at all.”
The chemotherapy was tough and some days Roberts felt too exhausted to walk or even sit up in bed. Since completing it, she has received maintenance chemotherapy to help prevent the cancer from spreading further and has started to feel better. She got bored and learned to knit. He also enjoys walking, painting, and starting a podcast. This semester he signed up for classes online.
“I’ve been … spreading the word about colon cancer and health in general,” he said. “I have the power to influence the community not only as a younger person, but also as a young person with the illness of an elderly person.”