Family struggles with difficult diagnosis

Colon cancer increasing in the under-50 crowd

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By Maria Maxham

At 35, David Gordon was strong and healthy. He loved playing at the park with his kids. His wife, Caitlin, said he'd go to the park to play soccer or football with one of his three older kids (the youngest, at only 15 months, is too young for serious sports), and he'd end up with an entire team of children who wanted to play.

"People like to be around him," said Caitlin. "He's magnetic."

David always wanted to help kids. He used to volunteer for Big Brother, and he was a foster parent. Now he has four children of his own.

And he also has stage 4 colon cancer. No family history. No risk factors. No symptoms leading up to his diagnosis.

For years, colon cancer had been considered largely an old man's disease. The kind of illness your uncle or your neighbor's father or your grandfather might get. But over the past decade, doctors and researchers have seen a troubling trend — younger people, in their 20s, 30s and 40s, developing and being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at growing rates. 

Age 50 has been the "colonoscopy age" for a long time. It was the milestone year marking not only the fact that a person is half a century old but also needs to start getting regular colon screenings to check for abnormalities.

In 2018, though, because of the sharp rise in colon and rectal cancer rates among young adults, the American Cancer Society lowered the recommended colorectal screening starting age to 45 for people of average risk. 

"The guideline was changed, based in part, on new data showing rates of colorectal cancer are increasing in younger populations," states the American Cancer Society website.

The American Cancer Society also presents this alarming information: "Once age is taken into account, those born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born around 1950."

Although the rate of diagnosis of colon and rectal cancer has dropped in the United States since the mid-1980s, that drop is due to less older Americans being diagnosed. Despite the overall drop, "incidence rates have been increasing for adults under age 50," says the American Cancer Society.

For David, the diagnosis was shocking. It seemed to come out of nowhere. He'd been feeling sick over the summer with a virus and bronchitis. He lost some weight but attributed it to his minor illness. In the fall, he had bad side pain and went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with gallstones. The doctors said they thought they saw lesions on his liver as well but wanted to send him home to follow up with his primary care physician.

"I said no," said Caitlin. "Lesions on the liver? That sounded serious to me. So we insisted that he stay and the doctors run more tests."

On Oct. 30, David and Caitlin got the horrible news: David had stage 4 cancer. Stage 4 is the diagnosis given when the cancer has spread beyond the original organ involved. In David's case, it was now in his liver and lungs in addition to his colon. He had 12 tumors in his liver and cancer in the bottom of his left lung.

Two days later, he started chemotherapy.

"It's crazy," said Caitlin. "The doctors told us that the stage of cancer he had should have made him bedridden. But days before, he was playing at the park with the kids and running around like the picture of health. Fifteen days before he was hospitalized, he had normal bloodwork. Two years previous, he had a normal CT of his chest because he thought he had a hernia. There were no signs."

In retrospect, the doctors think the bronchitis he suffered in the summer could have been a result of the cancer spreading to his lung. But because he was so young and seemingly healthy, nobody thought that was the case.

Now David and Caitlin's life has been completely upended. David, who was independently employed doing taxes and as an Amazon seller, has been too weak and sick from the chemo to work. 

"It's hard," said Caitlin. "Really hard. I'm a case manager for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. I love my job, but it's hard to support a family of six on my salary."

The kids, age 15, 12, 11 and 15 months, have been receiving support through Wellness House in Hindsdale, a nonprofit organization that provides free counseling and support services for cancer patients and their families.

David's first round of chemo — which involves a brutal schedule of drugs every two weeks — will be over in January. At that time, the doctors will see where they are and decide on next steps.

"At this point, it's about prolonging his life, not saving it," said Caitlin. "The doctors have told us he'll be on chemotherapy for the rest of his life." 

Chemotherapy has left him sensitive to cold, so he needs to wear gloves to take anything out of the fridge. He's extremely weak, especially on Monday and Tuesday, after receiving chemo meds through a port over the weekend. Fortunately, he still has an appetite, so he's gaining back some of the weight he lost.

"We don't want this to happen to another family," said Caitlin. "We never thought this would happen to us. He's young. He doesn't smoke. He had no symptoms or risk factors. I want people to know that if they have any unusual symptoms, they should get them checked out. You need to advocate for yourself and seek out second opinions if you're not satisfied with the answers you get."

Caitlin's sister set up a gofundme for David and Caitlin's family. "The generosity has been so unexpected and amazing," said Caitlin. "Knowing people care and having support eases the burden a little."

The gofundme link is here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/stage-4-colorectal-cancer-strikes-father-of-four

But nothing can take away the reality of the situation for the family, whose lives have been affected irrevocably.

"Sometimes David says his goal is to be around long enough for our baby to remember him," said Caitlin. "There really aren't words for how hard it is to hear that."

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Reader Comments

5 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Comment Policy

Brandy Penta  

Posted: December 12th, 2019 5:55 PM

I would love to reach out to her and talk. My husband was diagnosed w Stage 4 3 yrs ago. Does anyone have a way to connect us?

Michelle Andres Fitz-Henry  

Posted: December 11th, 2019 9:49 PM

Got it. Thank you!

Michelle Andres Fitz-Henry  

Posted: December 11th, 2019 8:16 PM

Nope. Could not make it work. I had to type it in. Made sure it was exactly right. It appeared to be. Nada. This needs to be easier to be helpful.

Whitney Clarke Grabowski from Sandy Hook  

Posted: December 10th, 2019 6:26 PM

Here's the link to the Go Fund Me page we set up for Caitlin & David: https://www.gofundme.com/manage/stage-4-colorectal-cancer-strikes-father-of-four.

Michelle Andres Fitz-Henry  

Posted: December 10th, 2019 5:26 PM

Review. I am having trouble getting to the Go Fund Me. Can you please provide a link? Thanks.

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