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Couple shares story of coping with colon cancer diagnosis and a pregnancy

Charlie Harrington, 35, didn't expect a colon cancer diagnosis when he asked his primary care physician about some symptoms he'd been experiencing.
/ Source: TODAY

Charlie Harrington, 35, started noticing early symptoms of colon cancer in spring 2020, but for months, he thought nothing of it: He was young, active and healthy, and as far as he knew, didn't have any family history of the illness. However, as he continued to notice symptoms like blood in his stools, he began to get concerned.

At the same time, his fiancée, Carly Leahy, 31, founder of the reproductive health company Modern Fertility, based in San Francisco, realized that she was pregnant with the couple's first child, just weeks before their wedding. The couple had rescheduled their ceremony several times amid the pandemic before settling on a small ceremony with just their parents and a few close friends.

"I think (Carly) sort of did a mic drop of the pregnancy test on my lap while I was reading one morning," Harrington recalled. That moment inspired him to get his symptoms checked: "I said 'I'm going to get this figured out.'"

Harrington contacted a new primary care physician, who scheduled him for a colonoscopy on Sept. 9. That same week, actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer, which Harrington said rattled him.

"I saw the news about Chadwick Boseman passing away and it was a shock, because here's this young, vibrant, incredible person, and I was like, 'Oh s---,'" Harrington recalled. "I kept looking at him, and it's in the back of my mind, kind of freaking me out."

On Sept. 9, Harrington went for his colonoscopy. The original plan had been for Leahy to pick him up when the procedure was done.

"It was the most horrifying six hours of my life, probably," Leahy recalled. "It took longer than it should have and they called me and they said 'We're going to need you to come into the hospital.' I was like, 'Why, is everything OK?' and they wouldn't tell me anything ... It was a total nightmare. I drove over there, and I think I just parked right in front of the hospital, and they took me to him.'"

Harrington was not diagnosed with cancer that day, but the doctor who had done the colonoscopy explained to the couple that it was likely cancer.

"That kicked off the worst week ever," said Harrington; he and Leahy had to wait a week before he could undergo a CAT scan, which would explain just how far the cancer had spread and what the treatment would look like.

"For a full week we didn't know if there was cancer all over his body and (he had) three months to live," Leahy recalled.

Amid all of this, they were still juggling the news of Leahy's pregnancy.

"We had to call my parents, (Carly's) mom, and just reveal (my diagnosis) and that was awful," Harrington said. "And we told them that we were pregnant at the same time, almost as like a carrot, like, it's OK."

On Sept. 15, Harrington underwent the CAT scan, while Leahy went for an ultrasound.

"This could have been a really bad day," Harrington said. Luckily, the news was positive: The baby was healthy, and Harrington was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer. It had not yet spread beyond the colon and could be removed with surgery. He scheduled the surgery for Oct. 12, a week after the couple's scheduled wedding, which they were determined to host after rescheduling it twice.

Carly Leahy and Charlie Harrington said their wedding was a bright spot amid a stressful year.
Carly Leahy and Charlie Harrington said their wedding was a bright spot amid a stressful year. Charlie Harrington and Carly Leahy

"We just had these milestones of intensity coming up," Leahy said.

While it was stressful having the wedding just days before the surgery, Harrington said it was "the best thing ever."

"It was exactly what we needed," Harrington said. "And then it was like, OK, the week after, we're going in for the kill, in terms of this other intense stuff. We were taking the bull by the horns, if you will."

The surgery was a success, but one follow-up test showed that Harrington did need some chemotherapy. He also decided to freeze his sperm, so that the couple could grow their family in the future without worrying about side effects from the chemotherapy.

In October 2020, Charlie Harrington underwent surgery for stage 2 colon cancer.
In October 2020, Charlie Harrington underwent surgery for stage 2 colon cancer. Charlie Harrington and Carly Leahy

Since completing his chemotherapy, Harrington has been cancer-free, allowing the couple to focus entirely on their baby girl, who is expected to arrive soon. Leahy told TODAY that she was about eight months pregnant.

"I'm very fortunate the pregnancy has gone well," said Leahy. "... I actually found out at 20 weeks that I was a carrier for cystic fibrosis, and we had to wait two weeks for Charlie to get his tests (about whether he was a carrier) back. ... I'm incredibly lucky that things are good, but I just think the heightened stress of the year definitely put more pressure on. If something went wrong here, I honestly do not know how we would have been able to function as humans."

Following his surgery, Charlie Harrington underwent chemotherapy to deal with remnants of stage 2 colon cancer.
Following his surgery, Charlie Harrington underwent chemotherapy to deal with remnants of stage 2 colon cancer. Charlie Harrington and Carly Leahy

"Now, we're cancer-free, as far as we know, we're eight months along, we're almost there," Leahy continued.

Harrington said that the experience has led him to pay more attention to his family history: He talked to his parents and discovered that several relatives had been diagnosed with colon or prostate cancer in the past. He urges people to talk to their families and make sure that they know their risk factors.

"I really have been trying to advocate for people to know that for these chronic things, like cancer, talking to your parents about their history, knowing what the signs are, (is important)," Harrington said. "Colorectal cancer is one of the most treatable things if you catch the early warning signs, I just don't think most people know the early warning signs."

Symptoms that you should watch out for include rectal bleeding, which may be indicated by blood in stool. Also keep an eye out for iron-deficiency anemia, abdominal pain, narrow stools or unexplained weight loss.