When her regular became irregular, Courtney Crutcher Bell knew it was time to see her doctor.
On Aug. 1, the former North Hardin High School star athlete was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
At the time of her diagnosis, Bell was 38 – seven years younger than the recommended age to begin colon cancer screenings.
Hardin Memorial Health gastroenterology doctor Kashif Haider, M.D., said it is unusual for a person in their 30s to be diagnosed with colon cancer, but the risk “in younger people is increasing, so symptoms like rectal bleeding should not be ignored.”
Haider said the average age of diagnosis is in the 70s, but the suggested age for screenings should not delay someone with symptoms from seeking care. Signs of colorectal cancer include gastrointestinal bleeding, a change in bowel habits or abdominal pain.
Bell said it is important to start the screenings early, especially if you have a family history of cancer.
Bell is the fourth in her immediate family of six to be diagnosed with some sort of cancer.
“Nobody wants to have the colonoscopy. Nobody wants to do the prep part of it. But you know what, I can deal with 24 hours of discomfort to save my life,” she said. “It’s not comfortable, obviously, but I’ll take that discomfort pretty much the rest of my life just to save my life.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. It is the third most common cancer in men and in women.
But it also is highly treatable and curable if found early enough through appropriate screening, said Dr. Donald Goodin, M.D., of the HMH Cancer Care team.
“Treatments may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination, but these cancers can be cured if found in an earlier stage, which is the purpose of cancer screening,” he said.
Bell had a low anterior resection on Aug. 30. The surgeon cut out 12 inches of her large intestine and removed 22 lymph nodes. Because her large intestine needed to heal, she was given an ileostomy, which is a surgical opening in the abdominal wall. An ileostomy provides a way for the end of the small intestine to release stool.
“It’s overwhelming at first because you have to get used to your new body image. Then having to take care of it. It’s scary to look at,” she said, noting she has become more comfortable with it.
Along with her surgery, Bell underwent chemo drug infusions with radiation. She had 28 radiation treatments in December and January.
“When you do those, people probably don’t realize you go every single day. You go Monday through Friday for those treatments and then you rest for the weekend and then go back,” she said. “It really wears and tears on your body having to do that.”
Bell just completed her third chemo treatment and has five more to go.
“I can’t wait to get back to my new normal,” she said, such as going back to being active and helping out with her 8-year-old son’s athletic team. “Right now, it’s killing me because I can’t.”
Bell said her white blood cell count currently is so low it is practically keeping her isolated. She has not gone to work, even though she said she loves her coworkers dearly, because she does not want to possibly catch something.
“I don’t go out in public anymore just because I can’t get sick, you know? It sucks. I am quarantined at home pretty much,” she said. “But, like I said, it’s what I’ve got to do: Deal with it to stay healthy. Stay alive. You’ve just got to push through.”
Helping her through is her great support system. Bell said her past and current involvement in sports also assists her in keeping a positive outlook.
“It is hard. It is hard to stay positive when you are kind of isolated to yourself, but I think sports help me out a whole lot with that because I can give myself these motivational speeches or you know kind of turn it around a little bit,” she said.
Bell said her son knows she is sick and she has to take medicine, but the family hasn’t used the word “cancer.”
“We haven’t told him the word ‘cancer’ because cancer has been in my family and he knows people who died of cancer, so we didn’t want to put that scare into him,” she said.
When asked what she would hope her son would learn or take away from her experience, Bell said her strength.
“No matter what it is, you fight. I am fighter, and I am not going to give up. (I) never have. And I think that relates back to sports. I get knocked down, I am going to get back up and I am going to come at you harder,” she said. “That would be the one thing I hope he would take away.”
Bell chose to share her story as part of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month to increase awareness of the disease.
“More or less, I want people to be more aware of what their bodies tell them,” she said. “... You have to be your own advocate. You know what is going on with your own body.”
Bell encouraged people, if they see anything out of the ordinary with their body, to address it with their doctor. She said not to be afraid to tell them what is going on.
“I’d rather be living today because I spoke up on something embarrassing than to not be,” she said.