After more than 15 years as a gastrointestinal nurse, Sasha Stefanov said she never thought she would become the patient.
But, a bout with colon cancer last year changed her perspective on her job and life, said Stefanov, who lives in Buffalo Grove with her husband and three sons.
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• A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days.
• A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so.
• Rectal bleeding, dark stools, or blood in the stool.
• Cramping or abdominal pain.
• Weakness and fatigue.
• Unintended weight loss.
Lowering your chances for colon cancer:• Maintain a healthy weight.• Be physically active.
• Limit time spent sitting
• Eat at least 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables each day.
• Choose whole grains over refined grain products.
• Limit your intake of red and processed meat.
• No tobacco in any form.
• Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women, two per day for men.
• Know your family history of cancer and inflammatory bowl disease.
Source: The American Cancer Society
Now healthy, Stefanov is spending March, which is also Colon Cancer Awareness Month, shedding light on symptoms and a disease that some people may be embarrassed to talk about in an effort to save more lives.
At 39, Stefanov is younger than the suggested age of 50 when doctors recommend that everyone start being screened with colonoscopies.
But, in December of 2012 she noticed some changes in her stool. She was concerned, but symptoms went away soon after. When her symptoms came back in April 2013 she talked to a doctor she works with and they immediately suggested doing a scope. Doctors found a malignant rectal adenoma, colon cancer.
When she was waiting for the results of the scope, Sasha said she was sure the doctor would tell her she had hemorrhoids.
"My reaction was 'Why me? How is this even possible?'" she said. "Now I say 'Thank God it was me because I knew something wasn't right and acted on it super fast."
The cancer was removed by an endoscopic procedure and Stefanov now gets check-up colonoscopies every three months.
"If I would have waited two months, it would have been too long," she said. "It's because of my awareness and knowing what symptoms to look for that I'm still here."
Although she was surrounded by GI patients every day, Sasha said she never thought she would be one of them.
"Now I think it was my destiny in life to be a GI nurse so I could save my own life," she said.
Now she said she has a better understanding of what her patients are going through and shares her story to help put them at ease.
Dr. Bill Parsons, medical director of the gastroenterology unit at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights where Stefanov was treated, said colon cancer is completely preventable if caught early.
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed in 2014. The disease is expected to cause about 50,310 deaths this year.
The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 20, according to American Cancer Society statistics.
Parsons suggests that everyone should get their first colonoscopy at age 50, unless they have family history or are seeing symptoms in their own bodies.
"Don't let family history and age fool you," Stefanov said. "Be in tune with your body. Family history has to start somewhere. You don't have to be 75 years old to have this disease."
While the prep for colonoscopies, which involves completely cleaning out the body, often scares people away from screenings, Stefanov said that is a poor excuse.
"It's a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things," Stefanov said. "Yes, it's bad, but it can save your life."
With anesthesia during the actual procedure, Parsons said patients don't feel any pain and should not be afraid of getting checked.
"The body is extremely complex. If you have any kind of symptom that seems abnormal, don't brush it off because it could be too late," she said. "I'm very blessed to be sitting here and watch my boys (ages 12, 9 and 5) grow up."
Stefanov said she isn't afraid to talk about her cancer experience and hopes it will help others.
"Bowels are taboo, but being a GI nurse and having a few kids, especially three boys, I got over that real fast," she said. "If I can save one life, then I've done my job."