When Kristina Kelly was pregnant with her second daughter in 2022, she developed “terrible hemorrhoids.” At first, she didn’t worry too much about them because she knew they commonly occur during pregnancy. When they didn’t go away months after she gave birth, she visited her doctor who ordered a colonoscopy. Kelly was stunned by the result —she had colorectal cancer.
“The doctor said, ‘We found a four-centimeter mass in your rectum that I’m pretty sure is cancer. It looks cancerous but we won’t know for sure until pathology comes back. But I want you to be prepared,’” the 37-year-old from Atlanta tells TODAY.com. “The scary thing is that at the time I was 36 — it would have been nine years before I ever had a screening colonoscopy discover it.”
Pregnancy and lingering symptoms
Kelly didn’t have hemorrhoids during her first pregnancy, but she wasn’t too surprised when she got them during her second one. She knew they were a common, but uncomfortable part of pregnancy.
“I had really bad hemorrhoids like painful, bad bleeding when I went to the bathroom,” she says. “I got all the medication for it, and it helped a little bit. But they never really went away.” She delivered her daughter, Siena, and began navigating life as a mom of a newborn and toddler. Still, the hemorrhoids persisted. About 10 months postpartum she visited the doctor for another issue and mentioned she still had hemorrhoids.
“(My doctor) was like, ‘Oh, let’s get rid of them. No one wants to deal with that,’” Kelly recalls. “I just simply asked her, ‘Can I get a colonoscopy? I just want to make sure everything’s OK.’”
Kelly asked for “peace of mind,” and didn’t think the test would reveal anything new. Her doctor agreed. But the day before her colonoscopy, she learned it would cost $600 because she wasn’t yet at the age for colonoscopy screenings.
“I’m very grateful that I had the money to pay for that because I realize that people don’t just have that sitting around,” she says. “That colonoscopy saved my life ... and not everybody has the opportunity to do so.”
Her doctor immediately noticed the mass that looked cancerous. She had her test on a Friday and worried all weekend wondering what the pathology results would reveal.
“It was the longest wait of my life that weekend. I would just stare at my daughters and cry, not knowing is this cancer? How far has it spread?” Kelly says. “Pathology came back as cancer.”
The doctors suspected that the tumor created extra pressure that contributed to her lingering hemorrhoids.
“We did more digging into the causes of my hemorrhoids, and it turns out it was my tumor,” she says.
The cancer only infiltrated one lymph node and did not spread to any of the nearby organs, making it a stage 3 diagnosis. Still, the doctors wanted Kelly to start chemotherapy quickly because they didn’t want it to grow elsewhere. She completed nine rounds of chemotherapy infusions and will soon start radiation.
“I feel incredibly grateful,” she says. “The treatments are working; my tumor is shrinking. My blood work is improving.”
Colorectal cancer in younger people
More young people like Kelly are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer and experts remain unsure as to why this trend occurs.
“If you went back to not that long ago, in the ’90s, only one out of five colorectal cancers are being diagnosed in people under the age of 55,” Dr. William Dahut, chief scientific officer for the American Cancer Society, told TODAY.com in 2023. “It went from 11% to 20%. That’s a big change in a relatively small period of time.”
Screening recommendations now encourage people to start colonoscopies at age 45 to try to capture some of these young patients though some develop the cancer prior to the start of screening. That’s why understanding the symptoms can be important. They include:
- Bloody stool
- Changing bowel habits
- Unexplained belly pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained fatigue
Many people feel awkward addressing their bowel habits, even with their doctors. But experts agree that they should talk to their doctors about any symptoms they notice.
“Patients don’t necessarily bring up the symptoms,” Dr. David Liska, director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at the Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY.com in 2023. “It’s a topic that people aren’t comfortable talking about.”
Sharing her story
When Kelly completes radiation, her medical team will evaluate whether she also needs to undergo surgery. She feels grateful for the support of her husband, Sean, and her children, Wren, 3, and Siena, 18 months, who motivated her when treatment felt grueling. She hopes others learn from her experience.
“I knew something wasn’t right and it had been going on for so long that I had to speak up and advocate for myself,” Kelly says. “I talked to so many women who all had hemorrhoids. It’s a very common thing and no one talks about it … people just deal with it.”
Kelly encourages others with any troubling bowel symptoms to speak to their doctor about them and not just suffer in silence. While she considered waiting to tell her story until her treatment ended, she knew that raising awareness about early detection could make a tremendous difference for someone else.
“Sharing my story might save someone’s life,” she says. “This is not something that anybody should have to go through and unfortunately it’s happening more and more to younger people.”