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Woman mistook her stomach symptoms for food poisoning, warns about risk

For two years, 34-year-old Diana Zepeda thought her GI symptoms were caused by stress and diet.
/ Source: TODAY

A young woman who thought her digestive symptoms were food poisoning is sharing her story in the hopes that others may learn from her mistake.

Diana Zepeda, 35, started experiencing what seemed like random diarrhea three years ago, but chalked it up to her diet and stress. She worked long hours and often ate from food trucks and delivery.

“I thought to myself — ‘I guess I shouldn’t eat sushi that was sitting in someone’s car for 40 minutes,’” Zepeda, who lives in Washington, D.C., told TODAY.

But the symptoms didn't go away. By January 2017, she noticed blood in her stool and the diarrhea was happening every other day. Still, she blamed her lifestyle. Finally, when the symptoms became unmanageable, Zepeda went to gastroenterologist Dr. Jessica Korman.

Korman, who is with Capital Digestive Care in Washington, ran blood tests and tested Zepeda’s stool. Tests revealed she had E. coli and Korman prescribed antibiotics for five days. The prescription didn't help.

“My symptoms didn’t get better — they got worse,” she said.

After more tests, her doctor scheduled a colonoscopy. The real problems began when Zepeda was prepping for the procedure. “I became nauseous and had severe abdominal cramps and nothing came out,” she said. “I couldn’t stop vomiting.”

Diana Zepeda, her husband Alexander Sweeney (right) and a friend dressed up for Diana's last week of chemotherapy.Courtesy Diana Zepeda

Because the prep didn’t work Zepeda was given a sigmoidoscopy, a partial colonoscopy. There was a tumor blocking her colon. A biopsy revealed the shocking diagnosis: Zepeda had stage 4 colon cancer.

“I was definitely in disbelief,” she told TODAY. “I don’t have a family history."

Early onset colon cancer is increasing

Zepeda is part of a growing trend that has been concerning experts — the increase of people developing colon cancer under 50. People under 50 are four times more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer than they were in 1990.

“It is unbelievable,” said Michael Sapienza, chief executive officer of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. “We don’t know why this is happening.”

And that’s worrying doctors.

“It is the unknown that is bugging us,” said Dr. John Marshall, director of the Ruesch Center for Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, who did not treat Zepeda. “We are learning more and more how a younger version is different.”

Younger people with colon cancer experience the same symptoms, which include:

  • Changes in bowel habits lasting more than a week
  • Blood in stool
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent cramping
  • Night sweats

But their risk factors are different. For people 50 and older being overweight, inactive, or having a family history of colon cancer increases their risk for it.

That’s not the case with people under 50.

“This younger crowd is ... very active with good eating, good health habits. There is something going on that we don’t yet understand,” Marshall said.

Diana Zepeda completed six months of chemotherapy for stage 4 colon cancer. She remains hopeful that she will remain in remission.Courtesy Diana Zepeda

That’s why early detection remains essential.

“Don’t panic. Most of the time it is not colon cancer,” said Marshall. “Most GI symptoms will come and go but if something is just not right, bring it to someone’s attention.”

‘Paralyzed with shock’

The tests showed that Zepeda's cancer had also spread to her liver. Doctors recommended surgery to remove part of her colon, 75 percent of her liver, 15 to 20 lymph nodes, her appendix and gall bladder.

“I was pretty paralyzed with shock,” she said.

Because Zepeda was young and hoped to have children doctors first moved her ovaries to preserve her fertility. Then she had a short round of radiation to shrink the tumors before doctors removed her organs and lymph nodes. She's finished chemotherapy about 10 months ago, and celebrated by dressing in formal wear with her husband.

“It is like the worst hangover of your life, but it is for six months,” she said about undergoing chemotheraphy.

Thanks to aggressive treatment, Diana Zepeda is hopeful that she will be in remission.Courtesy Diana Zepeda

While there’s a 50 percent chance the cancer will return within the next five years, Zepeda remains optimistic, although she's still embarrassed by how long it took her to go to the doctor.

“I think people can relate to the type of excuses … that I went through,” said Zepeda. Her story first appeared earlier this month in the Washingtonian.

“There is nothing lucky about getting cancer, but I still feel like I am incredibly lucky," she said.

Her most important message?

“Stop self-diagnosing and please go to the doctor,” Zepeda said.