'Pay attention to symptoms,' young colon cancer survivor says

March 07, 2023
portrait of a smiling woman in a garden
Ebony Holmes said that family support got her through her treatment for colorectal cancer, which is increasingly being diagnosed in younger adults. Photo by Clif Rhodes

“You’re young. You’re healthy. We’re not worried about cancer.”

That’s what Ebony Holmes’ doctor said when she raised concerns about her stomach pains and the blood she saw in her stool.

It’s what the gastroenterologist said when she showed up for the colonoscopy that her doctor ordered, just in case.

And yet, in February 2022, Holmes, at age 38, became one of about 19,000 people under the age of 50 diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year in the U.S.

Although the colorectal cancer death rate has been decreasing in older adults for decades, thanks to increased awareness of the importance of screening, the rates of colorectal cancer and of colorectal cancer deaths have been increasing in younger adults since the mid-2000s. There are a number of ideas about why this might be, including unhealthy American diets and the rising rates of obesity, but no one knows for sure why colorectal cancer rates are rising in people under the age of 50.

Holmes said she was in shock after the colonoscopy revealed a cancerous mass. Even more shocking – further testing at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center showed that the cancer had spread to her liver. It was classified as a stage 4 cancer.

Hollings surgeon Virgilio George, M.D., chief of colorectal surgery at MUSC, said that about 10% of colon cancer cases are in people under the age of 45. Unfortunately, he said, it’s common for both patients and doctors to think the symptoms must be anything but cancer in a young person. And younger adults are often busy with work and family – Holmes has two young sons – and ignore vague symptoms, he said.

“What happens is you put your health on the back burner because you have all these important things that take precedence,” he said. “So self-care is also something that, as a younger population, we need to do. We need to be more vigilant about this.”

Holmes had genetic testing done, to see if a gene mutation might be the reason for her diagnosis, but the testing didn’t uncover a culprit.

“Basically, I was told it was just the luck of the draw, which is really not something you want to hear. It means that there was nothing I could do to prevent it,” she said.

"I'm just so grateful. My faith in God kept me through this whole process."

Ebony Holmes
colorectal cancer survivor

After getting the diagnosis, Holmes began putting together the clues about odd symptoms she had had.

A few years earlier, she had been diagnosed with anemia.

“They didn't know why. It was just, all of a sudden in my 30s, I'm anemic,” she recalled. Anemia can be a sign of colon cancer because the tumor can bleed internally. She had also noticed changes in the frequency of her bowel movements and how they smelled.

“But it's just something where you think, ‘Oh, maybe I ate something different today,’” Holmes said. "So it's really little signs that you wouldn't think are associated with cancer that you really need to pay attention to.”

Holmes’ treatment plan included six months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by surgery in October. George noted that Hollings is able to offer multidisciplinary care – all members of the care team consult with each other to ensure that each patient is getting the right care.

“That’s a phenomenal resource that we can provide to our patients coming to MUSC. These days, care is tailored according to the cancer and according to the patient,” he said.

Further, Hollings is the only program in South Carolina to earn accreditation through the National Accreditation Program for Rectal Cancer.

Just as important as the medical plan was the support she got from family and friends.

“Family support is the biggest thing that helped me through it. I had support coming in from everywhere. Family out of town, family calls checking up on me daily, making sure that I didn't need anyone driving me. My husband drove me to every appointment, was there through every chemo,” she said. “They made sure that I didn't stay alone because sometimes, being alone, sometimes your thought process can drag you down.”

Happily, Holmes has had a good outcome so far.

“As of Dec. 21, I am cancer free officially – none detected in my liver or in my colon or anywhere else, for that matter,” she said.

She advises others to pay attention to their bodies and to appreciate life.

“Enjoy life. It can turn just that quickly,” she said. “I'm just so grateful. My faith in God kept me through this whole process. Don't take life for granted. Just enjoy every moment, live every day like your last because you never know.”