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B.C. actor developed colon cancer at 30, says doctors ignored her symptoms

WATCH: More problems with colon cancer screening in B.C.

Vancouver actor Annette Reilly — who plays Diana Spellman, the mortal mother of teenage witch Sabrina Spellman in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina — spent much of 2011 at doctors’ offices and hospitals with intestinal issues.

At the time, Reilly was 30 years old and presented with symptoms of severe cramps, a blockage, bloody stool, anemia and low hemoglobin. Eventually, she had a near-daily low-grade fever.

These are all classic symptoms of colon cancer, but doctors didn’t consider that someone her age could have the disease because it’s normally associated with older men.

READ MORE: Rates of colon cancer have doubled among young people, and doctors still don’t know why

After 10 months of wondering what was going on, Reilly was given a colonoscopy. It revealed she had Stage 3B colon cancer — and it had spread to her lymph nodes.

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“I think if I had been a male over the age of 50, I would have been given a colonoscopy first thing, right out of the gate, and they would have found this giant tumour,” Reilly told the Canadian Press.

“I found that I wasn’t being taken seriously by the medical system, which I found to be consistent with my other cancer-surviving peers. Because of our age and sometimes our gender, there’s a bit of discrimination that happens there. It’s a bias, I think, that’s taught to doctors.”

Alberta man’s story highlights importance of taking colon cancer risk seriously
Alberta man’s story highlights importance of taking colon cancer risk seriously

Reilly isn’t alone in feeling this way. A new report from Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) looked into the issues faced by young adult cancer patients in Canada.

Researchers surveyed 622 people between the ages of 15 to 39 and found that stigma was an issue for the community.

“Many people see this age group as ‘too young to have cancer,’ resulting in a massive lack of resources, from support to research,” Geoff Eaton, founder of YACC and a young adult cancer survivor himself, says in a news release.

READ MORE: These two cancers aren’t detected early enough, and it’s costing Canadian lives

According to the Canadian Press, Reilly struggled to find information about her cancer and treatment because so few young women receive the same diagnosis.

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“I just hope that those in the medical community will look at the individual cases without the bias, just for what they are, and realize that there are exceptions to the rules,” Reilly says. “I hope there can be a bit of compassion there, too.”

Detection is a problem

According to a new report by the Canadian Cancer Society, nearly half of colorectal cancer cases aren’t detected until they have spread to other organs.

“The reason this is important is the stage at which cancer is diagnosed has a big impact on the outcomes of the disease,” Dr. Leah Smith, senior manager of surveillance at the Canadian Cancer Society, previously told Global News.

Colorectal cancer, or cancer of the bowel and colon, is the second most diagnosed cancer in Canada and the second leading cause of cancer death, accounting for an estimated 9,400 deaths in 2017. If it’s caught at Stage 1, it has a 90 per cent survival rate. If it’s caught at Stage 4, the survival rate is less than 15 per cent.

READ MORE: ‘Do what is important to you’ — Teacher writes own obituary before dying of cancer

There’s also an easy test for colorectal cancer: a stool test, which can be done at home, is the first step.

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The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that all adults between the ages of 50 and 74 take this test every two years, more often if they have a family history of colorectal cancer or other risk factors.

Screening programs exist in every province except Quebec, where one is being developed.

How can Canadians help protect themselves?

Someone’s risk of developing colorectal cancer can be reduced by healthy lifestyle habits. These include being physically active, maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting red and processed meat consumption and avoiding large amounts of alcohol.

Smoking also increases your risk of colorectal cancer so avoiding tobacco is best, said Smith.

Screening for colon and rectal cancers is also important. Smith says there are screening programs in place for adults over 50 but adds that anybody who is experiencing symptoms that indicate colorectal cancer should be checked for it.

READ MORE: Cancer now the number one killer in wealthy countries: study

“Some of the signs of colorectal cancer are things like changes in bowel moments, blood in the stool, stomach cramping and weight loss,” Smith said.

She adds that speaking to your doctor about any such symptoms is crucial to early detection.

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“It’s always important we are aware of our body and are communicating openly and honestly with our health-care providers about what’s going on.”

— With files from the Canadian Press, Laura Hensley and Leslie Young

 

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca