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Published on May 10, 2019

Richard Turner with sons

Young father, husband recovers from colon cancer after sharing symptoms with doctor

'Talk to your doctor'

People kept telling Richard Turner that he was too young. Despite some symptoms, could he really have colon cancer at 39?

The answer shocked Richard: a colonoscopy in January 2017 showed the sharp pains in his abdomen and changes in his bathroom habits were results of advanced-stage colon cancer.

"It was hard to believe," Richard says. "I woke up after the colonoscopy, and I remember the doctor saying he wished he had good news. He told me I had a tumor."

Additional tests revealed the cancer had quietly spread to Richard's liver and was so extensive that surgery was not an option at the time. Instead, Richard's care team at the Gundersen Health System Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders—which would grow to be led at varying times by Dipesh Uprety, MD, Medical Oncology; David Marinier, MD, Medical Oncology; Ezana Azene, MD, Interventional Radiology; and Travis Smith, MD, General Surgery— started him on an aggressive treatment plan that began with 18 rounds of chemotherapy.

The frequency of treatment left Richard exhausted, keeping him from work for much of the year and limiting his normally active lifestyle with his wife, Mandy, and sons, David, 10, and Sam, 3.

"I love to play around with the boys. I wasn't able to when I was sick," Richard says. "Plus, Sam was so young at the time. I kept thinking, ‘Will he even remember me if I die from this?' That—and trying to help my oldest son grasp everything that was happening—was the hardest part."

Thankfully, the Turners received welcome news by Richard's 14th round of chemotherapy: the cancer had shrunk enough for surgery.

"That was pretty great to hear," Richard says. "I felt like I was finally on the path to beating it."

In October 2017, surgeons removed the tumor from Richard's colon. To prepare his liver for surgery, he then underwent a portal vein embolization. The complex procedure allows the healthy area of an organ to grow so that it can function after removing the tumor in surgery, which Richard's doctors did for his liver in January 2018. Richard also was prescribed more chemotherapy, this time orally, to increase the chance of a full recovery.

While treatment for colon cancer depends on the stage and location of the disease, surgery is often the most effective treatment when detected early. For advanced cases—like Richard's—care plans may include a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

If caught before spreading, survival rates climb to 90 percent, and chemotherapy and radiation can often be avoided. Listening to your body—taking even small warning signs seriously—is key to the best possible outcome.

"If you notice something seems off or feels different, talk to your doctor," Richard says. "Don't be embarrassed about it. I can't help but think that if I would have gone in sooner and described my symptoms, they may have found just a polyp instead of a tumor."

You're never too young for colorectal cancer

Did you know colorectal cancer affects men and women equally? It's not just a disease that affects older generations either. In fact, colorectal cancer is on the rise in people younger than 50, according to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor. These symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but it's important to find out.

What are the warning signs?

  • Anemia
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas, pain or feeling full/bloated
  • Unknown weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • If you have Crohn's, colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, you may be at higher risk

What can you do if you're younger than 50?

  • Know the signs and symptoms
  • Listen to your body and speak up if something is not right
  • Know your family health history
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