Carly Mesic's days had a certain rhythm. She was busy managing a restaurant, working out with her husband, Brian, and raising her three kids, who range in age from 6 to 14.
Mesic, who lives in Orlando, Florida, says she was "super active," exercising at least five times a week. She had changed her diet and fitness routine and lost 40 pounds in a six-month period.
"It was honestly the best I have felt since I had my kids," Mesic, 36, told TODAY.
"But around October of 2017, I noticed some blood in my stool," she said. "I knew it wasn't normal, but it wasn't consistent enough to be super-concerned about at that point."
For the next few months, Mesic kept explaining away her symptoms, which included thin bloody stools, constipation and persistent pain in one side of her abdomen. The busy mom googled her symptoms, but when most websites claimed cancer was "unlikely," she carried on with her schedule and assumed she was fine.
She visited her doctor, thinking it might be hemorrhoids, but there were no visible lesions and the doctor referred her for a colonoscopy. She had to reschedule the appointment a few times because of a health insurance mix-up and her busy schedule, Mesic said, and soon she fell back into her daily routine of workouts, running and convincing herself the symptoms were "nothing too serious."
In August 2018, Mesic's issues had become more severe and she decided to get checked in the emergency room.
"I don't know why, but I was at work — it was a Sunday — and I just thought, 'You know what, I'm going to go to the ER," she said. "I'm not dying, but at this point I just have to know what's going on. I left work and texted my husband telling him I was going to go that night. I went home and changed and left for the ER, not knowing I would end up in the hospital for almost two weeks."
At the emergency room, doctors performed a CT scan, a series of X-rays from different angles that can help doctors locate tumors and detect cancer hiding inside the body.
"The doctor told me the CT scan revealed a tumor about the size of a small orange in my colon," said Mesic. "I paused, looked at my husband and was like, 'OK, what does that mean?' They said they were going to admit me because there were also other spots that were suspicious. I said, 'Suspicious for what?' They told me cancer and I started to cry."
After a colonoscopy, a colorectal surgeon told Mesic she had colon cancer. A PET scan, which uses radioactive medicine to locate cancer cells in the body, later confirmed Mesic had stage 4 colon cancer that had metastasized to her lungs and liver.
"I was told that I have probably had cancer for years," said Mesic, then 35. "Years can go by and you're living with something that can potentially take your life and you have no idea because there are no hard symptoms in the early stages."
She tried to remain positive.
"The time I was in the hospital, I would claim I was going to beat it," Mesic said. "I would walk up and down the hallways doing lunges, trying to keep my spirits up, then I would cry my eyes out. I remember crying with the nurse because I didn't want to leave my kids without a mother. I cry every time I think about that — it's the worst thing to me, knowing how much they would miss me, how much they would be hurting and how I wouldn't be there to comfort them."
And, Mesic isn't alone in her fears.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than one tenth of colorectal cancer cases occur in people under age 50. A 2018 report by the Colorectal Cancer Alliance indicates 41% of the more than 1,600 young-onset cases studied waited at least six months after experiencing symptoms before talking to a doctor, 80% of them had children under the age of 18 when diagnosed and 71% were diagnosed at stages 3 or 4.
Kim Newcomer is manager of the alliance's Never Too Young initiative and was also diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer at age 35. Newcomer says it's important for young women to know the signs and symptoms.
"Colorectal cancer is becoming more frequent in women," said Newcomer. "It's now the third most common for us with an estimated 69,650 women to be diagnosed in 2020. The good news is colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. If you notice any symptoms like blood in your stool, anemia, weight loss, abdominal pain, fatigue, changes in your digestion process or narrowing stool, book an appointment with your doc immediately — especially if you have a family history of the disease."
Mesic started her first chemotherapy treatment in August 2018. Since then, she has gone through several rounds of chemotherapy, a resection of her entire sigmoid colon — the part of the large intestine that is closest to the rectum and anus — and radiation treatment to the left and right lobes of her liver. Mesic says the process has been painful and exhausting, but with the support of her husband and friends, she has taken each treatment as it comes and remained hopeful.
In December 2019, after going to the emergency room for a sharp pain in her side, new scans delivered more devastating news.
"Not only did the CT scan show new tumors in my abdomen, but my cancer tumor markers bounced back up," Mesic said. "I knew with that reading that the tumors had to be cancerous. The PET scan has now shown uptake in those tumors, which means they are metastasis from my colon cancer."
"I just feel like I was re-diagnosed all over again," said Mesic, who has appointments scheduled in the coming weeks to plan the next steps for her treatment. "My doctor said that I should spend my time with my kids while I am feeling well."
Regardless of the twists and turns in her treatment, she tries to be open with her kids about her condition.
"I've been up front from the moment I was diagnosed, and let them know Mommy is sick," said Mesic. "They see me with my chemo pump and see me on days when I'm not feeling the strongest. I'm not sure if it has really clicked for the little ones though — they haven't really acted any different since being diagnosed."
"My older son always asks how I'm doing and about how my treatments are going," Mesic continued. "We're going to look into family therapy or someone to talk to that deals with families during these hard times soon."
In the wake of Mesic's latest news, her best friend, Hilary Vickers, who has held fundraisers for the family and supported Mesic throughout her treatment, put out a call on social media asking people to send Valentine's cards for her best friend.
"When you're fighting something like this, it's not only a physical battle but an emotional and mental one as well," said Vickers, who also lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, Keegan, and their two children. "Keeping positive and joyful in these hard days is important, so it's my goal to do everything I can for her. What better way to encourage her than with an influx of cards filled with love and encouraging words?"
In a recent Facebook post about the Valentines, Vickers shared a photo of Carly with the first Valentine she received, saying her friend took it along to a recent chemotherapy infusion appointment to open for encouragement.
"It's making a difference already," Vickers said in the post. "Look at that smile! If you, too, would like to send love and encouraging words please do!"
Vickers says about 20 Valentines have been opened by Mesic so far, with many more pouring in as she continues her current round of chemotherapy.
As Mesic moves forward with treatment, she hopes sharing her story will encourage other young women to get checked if they're experiencing symptoms of colorectal cancer.
"Go to the doctor and get checkups, schedule a random colonoscopy — because why not?" she said. "It doesn't hurt and it's better to know you are in the clear than to have something come out of the blue one day."
"I never thought this could be me, people who know me never thought this could be me," Mesic said.