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'Young with an old man's disease': 22-year-old shares life with stage 4 colon cancer

Kierstyn Roberts thought stress caused her chest pain and was shocked to learn she had stage 4 cancer at 21.
/ Source: TODAY

When Kierstyn Roberts, then 21, started experiencing chest pains last fall, she thought she was stressed. It made sense — she was a full-time mathematics student and resident assistant at Indiana University during a pandemic. When the chest pain intensified she visited the hospital and learned that anxiety wasn’t the culprit: She had stage 4 colon cancer.

“I thought it was something that I could be medicated for, that it will be an easy fix and then I’d just go back to being a normal 21-year-old,” Roberts, now 22, of Indianapolis, told TODAY. “The more the doctor explained things, the more scared I got. I thought that I was going to die.”

When Kierstyn Roberts started experiencing chest pain, she thought the stress of full-time college classes, her role as a resident assistant and a pandemic were getting to her. She later learned that colon cancer caused the pain she experienced. Courtesy Kierstyn Roberts

Roberts is sharing her story to encourage others to be mindful of their bodies and seek treatment if something feels wrong.

“Pay attention to what your body is telling you,” she said. “I’m not saying that I ignored mine. I just didn’t have enough information.”

Chest pains and pressure

In September 2020, Roberts started experiencing a tightness in her chest, which was “bloated to the point where it felt like something was pushing up against my ribcage.” But it occurred so randomly that she wasn’t sure if it was a problem. Then the pressure in her chest intensified on the right side of her body.

“Whenever I talked or laughed or stretched or coughed or something like that, I would feel a sharp pain instantly,” she said. “I wasn’t able to sleep for a while without my side hurting and it was strong enough where I knew it wasn’t a pain I could really ignore.”

Roberts visited a local urgent care clinic and the doctor suspected that college food inflamed Roberts’ gallbladder and gave her a drug to ease the discomfort.

“I did feel better in the morning times. I was able to get out of bed and take the medication and go through the day. But there were times that I still felt that pressurized feeling,” she said. “The sharp pain was no longer a problem but it got to a point where my stomach felt full.”

When Kierstyn Roberts learned she had stage 4 colon cancer at just 21 years old, she found it so unbelievable that she thought it was a joke. Courtesy Kierstyn Roberts

On Sept. 13, she woke to sharp chest pains as she struggled to breathe.

“That’s where I became really concerned,” Roberts said. “Twenty-one-year-olds don’t get chest pains like that. That’s not something that’s normal.”

She visited another urgent care clinic and the doctor said she was fine and there was little that could be done. Roberts didn’t believe it.

“Chest pain is something that is very serious,” she said. “When I was talking to him he was like, ‘Well for a 21-year-old you shouldn’t have chest pain. So maybe you’re just overwhelmed.’”

Stunned, Roberts went to the emergency room for a second opinion.

“I knew for myself the way I was feeling that there had to be something that could be done,” she said.

Doctors at the emergency room performed urine and blood tests and took a CT scan of her chest. The blood and urine tests were normal.

“Part of me knew that there was something more going on because I kept asking if I could eat,” she said, adding that the nurse kept saying they had to wait. “I kept getting this feeling like maybe there’s a reason why.”

When doctors arrived, she finally understood why.

“They found multiple tumors on my liver and in my colon,” she said. “They didn’t confirm that it was cancerous. They just said they found a lot of tumors.”

Having an "old man's cancer" is tough for 22-year-old Kierstyn Roberts. But having support from her friends, family, church and community helps. Courtesy Kierstyn Roberts

After the colonoscopy, Roberts learned she had stage 4 colon cancer.

“My mind went blank,” she said. “I thought it was a joke. I literally thought he was joking or trying to make me unnecessarily scared … That may not make any sense but that’s what my brain thought.”

Colon cancer and young people

Like many people, Roberts thought of colon cancer as an “old man’s disease.” But colorectal cancer is increasing in younger people. In 2020, about 18,000 people under 50 were diagnosed with colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Since the mid-1980s adults age 20 to 39 have experienced an increased rates of colorectal cancer. For people age 40 to 54, rates have been increasing since the mid-1990s.

The American Cancer Society notes that Black people experience colorectal cancer at rates about 20% higher than non-Hispanic white people and the death rate is nearly 40% higher.

Symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • Iron deficiency
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Blood in the stools
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Narrow stools, diarrhea or constipation
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement
  • Unexplained weight loss

Life with stage 4 cancer

Roberts’ doctor recommended intense chemotherapy to shrink the tumors and she left school for the fall semester to focus on her health. At times, it feels overwhelming.

“You go from living your life, going through college, thinking that you’re going to graduate, get a job — like all these things that are normal — and then you’re hit with this boulder,” Roberts said. “You have colon cancer and it’s not just colon cancer it’s stage 4. It’s not something that has been easy at all.”

While Kierstyn Roberts left the fall semester of college to focus on treatment for stage 4 colon cancer, she started getting bored. She learned to knit and found herself enjoying painting and walks. Courtesy Kierstyn Roberts

Chemotherapy was tough and some days Roberts felt too exhausted to walk or even sit up in bed. Since completing it, she takes maintenance chemotherapy, to help keep the cancer from spreading more, and has started to feel better. She grew bored so she learned to knit. She also finds pleasure in walking, painting and starting a podcast. This semester she enrolled in online classes.

“I’ve been … spreading the word about colon cancer and overall health,” she said. “I have the power to influence the community not only as a younger person but someone who is young with an old man’s disease.”