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39 and Pregnant… With Colon Cancer

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Along with AARP cards and new medications, colonoscopies are typically what we associate with a 50th birthday; in fact, the American Cancer Society currently recommends that individuals with average risk should begin receiving colorectal cancer screenings at age 50. However, the latest research shows that these current measures might be a bit off.

In a study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers discovered a slight, yet foreboding trend: CRC diagnoses are on the decline in the country as a whole, but are slowly on the rise for individuals under 50. For women specifically, this trend could put something else at risk: the success of a pregnancy.

More: Behind the Alarming Rise in Colon Cancer Diagnoses for Gen Xers & Millennials

Gina Neri, colon cancer survivor and mother of three, shared her story with SheKnows, and tells us why we need to rethink the colonoscopy.

Neri was healthy. She was mother of two at the time working as a successful lawyer in New York City. She did not have a history of cancer in her family, and at 39 years old, the idea of a CRC screening had never crossed her mind.

Then one day out of the blue, she began to experience some rectal bleeding. While this simply could have been related to the delivery of her second child 18 months earlier, Neri decided to play it safe and went to her primary care doctor. What began as a simple examination began a whirlwind of a journey.

A gastroenterologist evaluated Neri’s bleeding as a precaution. After several tests, Neri received the news that she was pregnant with her third child. But at a time normally filled with celebration, Neri also faced a different diagnosis: She had colon cancer, and the tumor was located directly behind her uterus.

“I just couldn’t believe it could happen, especially to me,” Neri told SheKnows.

Suddenly, everything was put in question — especially the future of her baby on the way. This diagnosis typically warrants immediate surgery, and most doctors and specialists recommended that she terminate the pregnancy. Neri had a life-altering decision to make, but she wasn’t prepared to lose the baby.

After some research, she found a removal procedure using the da Vinci System, a minimally invasive robotic-assisted surgery. This option, which allows for a 3-D HD view of the inside of the body, provides surgeons with the vision and accuracy to safely remove a tumor without harming the baby. In comparison to open surgery, the da Vinci System also helps patients experience less blood loss and reduces the odds of complications, which can become life-threatening during pregnancy.

More: Chemotherapy and Other Treatments That Are Completely Safe During Pregnancy

During the ninth week of her pregnancy, Neri underwent the surgery. When she woke up, she was able to hear her daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. The procedure had been a success, and Neri carried her third child to term. She and her husband chose to name their daughter Gianna Hope after Italian pediatrician St. Gianna Beretta Molla, who refused to abort her child even with the knowledge that continuing the pregnancy with uterine cancer might kill her, and it did.

Recognizing the tendency of Gen Xers and millennials to overlook the importance of a colonoscopy until later in life, Neri, now just 41, is starting a foundation called “Gianna’s Hope” to defy this clearly out-of-date norm.

More: Should You Get a Colonoscopy? 3 Things to Ask Yourself First

Gianna’s Hope is aiming to work with advocacy organizations to raise awareness of this type of cancer in younger men and women and to lower the recommended age for CRC screenings. More specifically, her goal is to support and give faith to pregnant women dealing with the diagnosis of colon cancer.

“It doesn’t make sense to wait for age 50 to begin to screen for CRC,” Neri said. “Waiting for some could be a death sentence.”

And she’s right. While life expectancies are longer and science continues to advance, we cannot expect all of our health problems to be solved for us. We must take our health into our own hands rather than waiting for symptoms that might not come. It might not just be our lives on the line.

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