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Young Father Overcomes Colorectal Cancer, Stresses the Importance of Knowing the Symptoms

At 35 years old, John Johnson felt he was in the best shape of his life. An avid runner, he trained to participate in the 2023 Cleveland Marathon and completed it within an impressive three-hour timeframe. However, a few weeks later, the young father received life-altering news: He had colorectal cancer.

“I remember the moment the doctor told me I had rectal cancer. I wasn't afraid. I wasn't scared. The first thought that caused any type of discomfort was, ‘How am I going to tell my wife?’ She didn't believe it at first. I don't know how much I believed it either at the time,” says John, who hadn’t recalled being sick since high school.

John stops to give his daughter a kiss while running a marathon.
John leads an active lifestyle, and one of his main passions is running. After training, he ran in the 2023 Cleveland Marathon as his family cheered him on. (Courtesy: John Johnson)

The Westlake, Ohio, resident began noticing blood in his stools leading up to the diagnosis. At first, he thought it could be from hemorrhoids. When the bleeding progressively got worse, he followed up with his physician. After reviewing his symptoms, the doctor recommended John get a colonoscopy.

“Following the colonoscopy, the doctor came into the room and pretty much laid it out for me. He told me they found a tumor, and he was going to connect me with one of the best colorectal surgeons in the country,” says John. Cleveland Clinic's rectal cancer program earned an accreditation from the National Accreditation Program from Rectal Cancer (NAPRC). To earn this voluntary accreditation, the program met 19 standards, including the presence of a rectal cancer multidisciplinary team.

The next day, John came to Cleveland Clinic and met with colorectal surgeon David Rosen, MD, who he recalls making him feel comfortable and at ease even amid the difficult time. John underwent further testing to reveal he had stage 2 rectal cancer.

“Stage 2 means the tumor has grown through the wall of the rectum, but it has not spread to either the lymph nodes or other organs. For most stage 2 and 3 rectal cancers, it's a group we call locally advanced rectal cancers,” says Dr. Rosen.

John while undergoing treatment for colorectal cancer.
Even though he had a tough journey with chemotherapy and radiation, John says he remained positive because of his faith and family. (Courtesy: John Johnson)

Although each case is different, Dr. Rosen says non-surgical therapies are typically the first treatment approach for locally advanced rectal cancers. So, John started treatment by undergoing rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. John was also enrolled in Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer. Although John promptly got connected to the resources needed for treatment, it was a lot to juggle, in addition to being a father and the owner of a design agency. He also learned his wife was pregnant with their second child two weeks after his diagnosis.

“It would typically take about a week for me to recover after treatments,” says John. “Imagine doing that while trying to run a business, raise a toddler and help my wife. I didn’t even have the energy to pick up my daughter and play with her a lot of the time.”

While experiencing side effects from chemotherapy and radiation, John stresses it was his faith and family that got him through multiple months of treatment. After his final infusion, it was time to undergo an MRI to see how the cancer responded.

“The MRI was done to determine if I was going to need surgery or not. But it came back negative. The tumor was completely gone, and the cancer responded perfectly to treatment,” says John.

With no signs of cancer remaining, John is now being closely monitored and has transitioned to the watch-and-wait phase of his care. This involves undergoing an array of testing more frequently to ensure there is no cancer recurrence. “This is a very small price to pay compared to undergoing a more invasive surgery,” says John.

John after completing radiation treatment for colorectal cancer.
John stresses he’s happy he was able to avoid surgery by starting with non-invasive treatment options for colorectal cancer. (Courtesy: John Johnson)

Being diagnosed at 35, John is among the rising number of young adults developing colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society reports rates of colorectal cancer in people younger than 55 years old have been increasing by 1% to 2% each year since the mid-1990s. Dr. Rosen explains research is ongoing to try and identify exactly why but lifestyle factors such as obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol use and consuming a diet high in red and processed meats could be contributing in some cases. There could also be genetic factors at play.

“Talk to your loved ones and see if there is a history of colorectal cancer or any type of cancer in your family. It’s important you and your doctor know this to help determine if earlier screening is needed. The vast majority of colorectal cancers can be prevented with a colonoscopy,” says Dr. Rosen.

Amid the rise in cases among young adults, Dr. Rosen and John also stress the importance of being aware of the symptoms. John was able to address the disease early on when it was more treatable because he went to the doctor after noticing blood in his stool. Other symptoms of colorectal cancer can include persistent changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss.

“By sharing my story, I’m hoping to raise awareness about colorectal cancer and the fact it’s possible to develop it at a young age. Some people tell me they never want to go get checked out because they don’t want to know. My story will hopefully encourage them that this can be treated and to follow up on any symptoms,” says John.

Dr. Rosen adds, “It’s important not to ignore any of the signs or symptoms of colorectal cancer, especially with cases rising in a younger population. It's absolutely devastating to see young patients walk in with incurable cancer because, in some cases, symptoms may have been ignored.”

Portraits of John and his family.
Shortly after being diagnosed, John found out his wife was pregnant with their second child.(left) (Courtesy: Alisha Marie Photography) Now, after overcoming colorectal cancer, John looks forward to creating new memories with his two children and wife.(right) (Courtesy: Amanda Ellis Photography)

John continues working closely with Dr. Rosen who John says has become like a friend, offering the encouragement he needed throughout this journey. With the cancer treatments behind him, John says he now has the energy to play with his daughter again as well as his newborn son. He is also back to engaging with the community through his business and lacing up his shoes for runs. Although he’s still working through some nerve damage from chemotherapy, John is looking forward to this new lease on life.

“This is kind of a second chance for me in many ways. A second chance to be present with all those around me but also a second chance to approach life differently and use my time intentionally,” says John. “After healing from cancer, I’m a whole new person – a father of two, and life is good. This is just another chapter in my story and something I can share to hopefully encourage and empower others.”

Related Institutes: Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center
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