When Washington, D.C., woman Diana Zepeda suffered from stomach pains, she first thought it was food poisoning, possibly caused by her stressful job and her frequent lunches at food trucks. But after her symptoms worsened despite repeated visits to the doctor and a shift to a healthier diet, she got a dreaded diagnosis she wasn’t expecting — she had stage 4 colon cancer, and the disease had already spread to her liver.
According to a report from the Daily Mail, Zepeda was an otherwise healthy young professional in Washington, D.C.’s finance industry, getting regular exercise and living an “active” lifestyle. Due to the long hours she often ended up working, she was forced to subsist on a “food truck diet,” which resulted in bouts of diarrhea that she chalked up to a simple stomach bug caused by her unhealthy diet.
“I thought I could eat anything and have a stomach of steel. I was getting what I thought was random food poisoning, but kind of often. A lot of gas, cramps, and diarrhea,” said Zepeda, 34, in an interview with People.
“I just thought I had one of those stomach bugs and it would just last a couple of days.”
Thinking that healthier eating habits would cause the stomach bugs to go away, Zepeda eliminated sugar, dairy, and grains from her diet. But her symptoms worsened in the three or so months that followed as she discovered blood in her stool in January 2017, after dealing with daily bouts of diarrhea. After visiting a gastroenterologist, she was advised that she had E. coli and was given antibiotics, which didn’t help either.
“First I was relieved that whatever it was could be cured with five days of antibiotics. I thought it was over … happily ever after. But that wasn’t the case unfortunately. I was dreading whatever the actual diagnosis would be.”
When the antibiotics Diana Zepeda was given still didn’t ease her stomach problems, her doctor scheduled her for a colonoscopy. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Zepeda explained that she was “scared [and] embarrassed,” and unsure why she needed to undergo a procedure normally associated with patients aged 50 and above. Zepeda decided to go through the procedure, but after trying to consume the laxative designed to help her clear her digestive tract, she suffered from “extreme” abdominal pain and vomiting.
Due to these complications, Diana Zepeda had to undergo a sigmoidoscopy, or partial colonoscopy. During this procedure, doctors spotted a golf ball-sized tumor blocking her colon. She was then diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, a condition she had previously dismissed as an “old people’s disease.” This, plus the fact that the cancer had spread to her liver, required her to have six months’ worth of chemotherapy and a number of other surgical procedures.
“I didn’t have the strength to walk for almost an entire month. I was bedridden. The hardest part was definitely chemo,” Zepeda told People.
Diana Zepeda completed her chemotherapy regimen on Thursday, and as noted by People, she and husband Alexander Sweeney celebrated by posing in formal wear while at the hospital. And while not yet out of the woods after her battle with colon cancer as she’s due for another surgery, Zepeda admitted to People that she’s “excited to go back to normal,” even if it won’t be another few years before her cancer is in remission. She added that she is now willing to tell her story to the rest of the world, hoping to raise awareness about how the disease could also affect younger patients.
Although colon cancer is still a disease that generally affects older people, the Daily Mail noted that it is becoming increasingly common in younger people. Colorectal Cancer Alliance spokesman Michael Sapienza told the publication that it’s not unusual for people under 50 to be misdiagnosed with another, much less severe medical condition.
“If you are under 50, you have more than double the risk of colon cancer than you did in 1990, and your risks of rectal cancer are four times what they were in 1990.”
While Sapienza added that bloody stool or rectal bleeding usually isn’t an immediate sign that one has colon cancer, he also stressed the importance of being proactive when visiting the doctor and firmly requesting a colonoscopy, regardless of age, to determine the cause of the bleeding or other related symptoms.