When Jenna Scott, then 31, was about seven months pregnant, she started experiencing worrisome symptoms: rectal bleeding, nausea and abdominal pain. Her doctor assured her that hemorrhoids and discomfort were just part of pregnancy. When her symptoms didn’t go away after giving birth, she learned the shocking news: She had stage 4 colorectal cancer.
Scott is sharing her story to raise awareness of colorectal cancer in young people of color.
“I’m really focused on getting the word out to my community, the Black community, because we don’t really talk about it,” she said. “We’re not really going to the doctors like we should and access to health care isn't as easy.”
Pregnancy symptoms never went away
When Scott began feeling nauseated and bleeding while pregnant in 2017, she worried. But her OB-GYN put her at ease by saying what she experienced was normal.
“He said, ‘Well that just comes along with the territory of pregnancy,’” Scott recalled. “I just bore it. Until my son was born and nothing stopped. I was still in pain.”
She tried different types of birth control and still felt unwell. A little after son Cameron’s first birthday, she went to her primary care physician, who listened to her concerns, performed bloodwork, which was normal, and recommended she visit a gastrointestinal doctor, who ordered a colonoscopy.
“I told him what was going on, and he just looked at me and said, ‘You're physically fit. You're really young. We don't know what this is, but let's just rule out anything serious.’ So that's why I had the colonoscopy," she said.
When she woke from procedure, the doctor told her what he found and she didn't believe it.
“He told me I had cancer,” Scott said. “We had built up such a good rapport up until that moment, I giggled and laughed … and I said, ‘Seriously?’ I thought he was playing and then he just had a straight face. And he said, ‘I would never joke about something like this.’”
Then Scott felt “numb.” While the doctors originally thought they caught it early, Scott later learned she had stage 4 cancer.
“Things were going into one ear and out the other,” she said. “The doctor said, ‘Well your situation is exceedingly rare because we can’t even get the best images on your CT scan because you don’t have enough body fat.’”
That felt especially frustrating to Scott. She was athletic, young and ate healthy foods — all the things she thought would protect her from colorectal cancer.
“I know that it sounds funny but I got mad at my body. I was like, ‘What are you doing to me?’” she said. “I was like, ‘I take such good care of you and you’re treating me this way.’ I didn’t fit into the ‘bubble’ of people that would normally fit this type of disease.’”
Colorectal cancer in young adults
While colorectal cancer in young adults remains rare, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 18,000 people under 50 were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2020. Since the mid-1980s, there has been an increase in colon cancer in adults 20 to 39 and rates for people ages 40-54 have been increasing since the mid-1990s, the organization says.
Black people experience colorectal cancer at rates about 20% higher than non-Hispanic white people and have death rates that are nearly 40% higher, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization SurvivorNet started Close the Gap to raise awareness of racial disparities when it comes to cancer diagnosis, treatment and survival.
Symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- Rectal bleeding
- Iron deficiency
- Abdominal pain
- Narrow stools
- An urge to have a bowel movement
- Unexplained weight loss
Sharing her story to help others
Scott, who originally shared her story with SurvivorNet, felt it was important to speak out about her experience so other young people don't feel so alone. At support groups, she’s often the youngest person there. She spends time mentoring younger people with colorectal cancer to help them through the experience.
“When you go to your chemotherapy infusion there’s nobody your age,” she said. “It’s just difficult when you don’t really have anyone that looks like you or is your age that you can ask, ‘Well, how did you deal with it?’”
After her initial diagnosis, Scott underwent a rigorous chemotherapy regimen and she also had surgery that removed a foot of her colon, two parts of her liver and her gallbladder. She developed a rare side effect where infected fluid accumulated in her chest, back and abdomen and she had to have it drained.
“That was tough,” she said. “I would be in the bathtub maybe five times a day because the warm water was my only relief from the terrible pain.”
She finished chemotherapy but nine months later, the cancer returned and it had spread to her liver and lungs. Again, Scott had rigorous chemotherapy and developed a rash on her face from it. She also had targeted therapy and two surgeries on her liver and lungs. Sometimes the stress and loneliness gets to her.
“I’ve only met three other people since I got diagnosed that were young like me and they’re all over the country,” Scott said. “It’s a terrible thing and then we don’t really have a lot of resources that help to prevent this from happening.”
Scott will be on chemotherapy for the rest of her life to prevent the cancer from spreading. While she has been through many therapies with sometimes harsh side effects, she stays strong for Cameron and her husband, Derrick.
“There were two things I asked for when I was going through the worst of it: Could I please just see my son grow up and grow old with my husband?” she said. “They are what I focus on.”