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Young mom dying of colon cancer at 35 urges young adults to 'get screened'

When Tonya Ferguson-Chams had stomach problems, she simply thought it was from being pregnant. She had no idea that colon cancer was to blame.
Courtesy Tonya Ferguson-Chams
/ Source: TODAY

When Tonya Ferguson-Chams experienced constipation while pregnant with her daughter, she initially thought nothing of it. Digestive problems are common during pregnancy, and increased levels of hormones can slow down the digestive tract. Yet when she was about 26-weeks pregnant and symptoms persisted, she started to worry.

Braxton-Hicks contractions started and she decided to go to the hospital — just in case.

“They gave me a few medications and I thought I would go to the bathroom,” the 35-year-old mom from Sebring, Florida remembered.

When Tonya Ferguson-Chams was pregnant she was constipated, but simply thought it was part of pregnancy. When it didn't resolve, she went to the doctor who discovered a golf-ball sized tumor blocking her colon. Courtesy Tonya Ferguson-Chams

Spotting the tumor

But it didn’t work. Doctors performed a sigmoidoscopy, a scope that looks only at the sigmoid colon, and they discovered the problem: Ferguson-Chams had a golf-ball sized tumor blocking her descending colon. Doctors wanted to remove it, but her pregnancy made it challenging.

“Most people would get it removed laparoscopically, but because I was pregnant there was a risk of hurting the baby,” she said. “(I) ended up having the major abdominal surgery, which put me in preterm contractions, but they stopped.”

Three days later doctors planned to discharge Ferguson-Chams when a sharp pain shot through her right shoulder.

“I was like, ‘It is probably fine.’ And my husband said ‘No something is wrong,’” she explained, adding that her husband, David, is a doctor.

Ferguson-Chams’ heart raced as she breathed rapidly. Soon, the baby’s heart rate plummeted as contractions began. Doctors prepared her for an emergency cesarean section but then the baby’s heart rate returned to normal. Instead, they tried stopping the contractions.

For two years, Tonya Ferguson-Chams has been in treatment for stage 4 colon cancer. She hopes her story increases awareness about higher rates of young patients being diagnosed with the cancer. Courtesy Tonya Ferguson-Chams

An emergency delivery

When contractions didn’t stop, Ferguson-Chams delivered her baby at 30 weeks. Sophia was 2 pounds 11 ounces. When Sophia went to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), doctors did a CT scan of Ferguson-Chams and discovered the problem: Her incision ruptured and she was in septic shock. They performed surgery to close the incision in her colon.

“I was so weak. I didn’t get to meet my daughter for three days,” she said. “I couldn’t turn myself over in bed. My husband had to physically come over and turn me over."

Ferguson-Chams eventually went home while Sophia remained in the NICU for 57 days. While doctors wanted her to start chemotherapy to treat the stage 4 cancer, she was still weak and losing weight because it felt too painful to eat.

She received esophageal dilations to help her eat and drink and started chemotherapy in January 2017.

The cancer kept spreading

In September 2017, she underwent another surgery to remove tumors from her liver, take out more of her colon and perform a hysterectomy because her ovaries had cancer on them.

“As long as I am on chemo, the cancer seems to be stagnant,” she explained.

But it hasn’t gone away.

In July 2018, she underwent hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), where a surgeon fills the adonminal cavity with chemotherapy drugs immediately after removing tumors, to try to remove all the cancer. But Ferguson-Chams still has cancer in her lungs.

“Every time the doctors give me not the greatest news I take it as a challenge,” she said.

Tonya Ferguson-Chams hopes to live long enough so her 2-year-old daughter has lasting memories of her. Courtesy Tonya Ferguson-Chams

Even though the outlook is bleak — doctors told her they don't expect her to live past November — she chooses to focus on joy.

“You have two options: You can try to be positive about this or you can be negative about it," she said. "I am not going to let this get the best of me.”

Her goal is to help others. In mid-April, Ferguson-Chams and her friends and family raised about $25,000 to donate to cancer research during a Relay for Life.

“I have got to make a positive of a horrible situation," she said.

While she hopes she goes into remission (with only a 10 percent chance) she also wants to increase awareness of colon cancer in young patients.

“If you have that feeling that something is wrong, press your doctor,” she said. “The earlier they find it, the more treatable it is. Stage one has a 90 percent remission rate … Get screened.”