In early 2020, Lindy Thackston started having stomach cramps, blood in her stool and lower back pressure. Doctors suspected she had colitis and ordered colonoscopy. Due to COVID-19, the screening was canceled three times. When Thackston finally went in for the routine procedure, she learned she had stage 3 colorectal cancer.
“It’s just a weight on your shoulders that you can’t even put into words. It was so hard to look at my son because I was just wondering how much time I had with him,” Thackston, 40, the anchor of FOX 59 Morning News in Indianapolis, told TODAY. “Right then, cancer became a full-time job.”
Thackston faced complications during treatment but has since finished it. She wanted to share her story with others to raise awareness. She hosts a podcast about her experience and hopes she can encourage others to seek help if they have any symptoms.
“The thing that's scary is that screenings dropped (about) 90% during the pandemic for colorectal cancer,” she said. “That means when people do get screened, there are going to be a lot of people who are stage 4.”
Stomach symptoms lead to cancer diagnosis
While some of Thackston’s symptoms, such as bloody stool, back discomfort and abdominal cramping seemed worrisome, she realized in hindsight she also had been more fatigued than usual — especially after her husband, Chris, spoke up.
“I'm a morning show anchor. I get up at 2:30 in the morning. At the time, my son was 4. I also emceed for the Indiana Pacers. So I am doing games at night and it was really hard for me to tell if I was fatigued,” she explained. “We went on little family vacation last February and my husband made the comment, ‘I think you're way too tired. More than you should be.' And I got really offended because I thought, ‘Well, I get up at 2:30 in the morning.'”
The exhaustion paired with the other symptoms encouraged her to visit her doctor. At first, they suspected colitis. Thackston did not have a family history of colorectal cancer and a CT scan showed “signs of inflammation.” But they urged her to get a colonoscopy.
“That got postponed three time because of COVID but my doctor just kept insisting that I get one,” she said. "I credit her for saving my life because she kept pushing until she found someone who would give me one and he happened to be a colorectal cancer surgeon."
As soon as the colonoscopy was completed, she learned of her diagnosis.
“When they were wheeling me out, I overheard a nurse say ‘tumor,’” Thackston said. “I turned to her and I said, ‘They found a tumor?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”
Immediately the surgeon met with her to discuss her treatment plan. She underwent genetic testing but they found no markers to cause her cancer. She was supposed to take chemotherapy pills and go through radiation before surgery then IV chemotherapy. But after 15 rounds of radiation, something was wrong: She looked nine months pregnant.
“I was in the hospital for 24 days and had emergency surgery, a bowel blockage, I lost three weeks of my memory,” Thackston said. “... I was in and out of the ER all summer with bowel blockages.”
On June 30 she had emergency surgery to fix the bowel blockage and was discharged on July 8. By July 15, she was back in the emergency room with tachycardia (a rapid heartbeat). With the complications, she lost 40 pounds. She had her port inserted on July 29 so she could eventually have IV chemotherapy and by Aug. 24 she was strong enough for surgery. Doctors removed the tumor, 8.2 inches of her colon and 41 lymph nodes. But her struggle wasn’t over. She needed surgery again for internal bleeding.
“I’m trying to do all I can to live,” she said. “It's funny. I was so scared I was going to get COVID and then I got cancer.”
She went through 10 rounds of IV chemotherapy and stopped. While she was supposed to have a dozen, the side effects were too tough on her body. Two days after completing chemotherapy, she had her gallbladder removed.
“You have a whole year of doing nothing but fighting the cancer, then all of the sudden you are done. You have survivor’s guilt. I felt bad about ringing that bell and looking at everyone else still sitting there,” she said. “Why did I make it? I don’t know.”
Life after treatment
Thackston started connecting with other people with colorectal cancer. As she grapples with the lingering side effects of treatment and guilt, the messages from others assure her that sharing her story was the right thing to do.
“The messages inspire me,” she said. “A 28-year-old girl who says she was embarrassed about her symptoms — and these are symptoms nobody wants to talk about — but she saw my Tweet and she went to the doctor and they caught her polyps literally right before it would have turned to cancer.”
Symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- Rectal bleeding.
- Abdominal pain.
- Iron deficiency
- An urge to have a bowel movement.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Narrow stools.
Even though colorectal cancer is thought of as an older person's disease, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 18,000 people under 50 were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2020. The numbers of younger adults with this cancer have been increasing since the 1980s.
“That’s really scary,” Thackston said.
The help she received from the community has also kept her motivated even when things felt overwhelming.
“I’m lucky in a way that I have a lot of support from people that I don’t even know,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how many people stepped up. We had people mowing our grass a year later. We still get meals delivered from people.”
Thackston also said her husband and son, Lachlan, 5, inspired her.
“My husband literally did everything, everything around the house. He had to physically carry me to the vehicle,” she said. “He had alarms set all night so he could give me my medication. When you get a cancer diagnosis, the whole family does. It’s so important to take care of not just the patient, but also … the caregiver.”