Like almost all early age onset colorectal cancer patients, Korrie Gernert was not even close to thinking about cancer. And why would she be? She was forty years old and in the peak of health. An avid runner who taught classes at Arizona State University, she would run a few miles early in the mornings to make room for class times and avoid the Arizona heat. On the weekends, however, she would run six to eight miles. She was a lifelong vegetarian who had leveled up to veganism.
All of her life she’d referred to herself as an optimist’s optimist, holding a firm belief that no matter what the situation, everything would be alright.
Despite being an extremely fit runner who started road races at the age of five, her life wasn’t without medical issues. She had a brief stint with skin cancer (she runs daily in Arizona). The cancer had been localized to a mole and removed. She followed up with radiation and there has been no recurrence.
Korrie has also struggled with an unexplained infertility. Coming from a big family, having a family of her own was a must. She had been involved with IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) treatments for some time. It had been a long road, but she remained optimistic.
She runs half marathons and unlike other runners, her race times have gotten a bit better as she has gotten older. She loves to show the doubters that an athlete on a plant-based diet could compete (and win) against the meat protein crowd.
Everything in her life said health. Nothing even hinted at cancer. She had none of the classic symptoms of colorectal cancer. No digestive issues, no blood in her stool, no cramping or unexplained weight loss. Nothing.
Then there was the one race.
In hindsight, this was the sign that there was something wrong. Typically, when Korrie would finish a race, she was not overly exhausted. She wasn’t a sprinter and being a practiced runner, she still had a little gas in the tank. But this half marathon was different. She was exhausted. She had even had to stop a few times during the race out of fatigue, and that was unheard of for her. It was her worst half marathon time ever.
A few months after the race she went in for a physical. She would end up getting a blood transfusion. Her hemoglobin was so low that her doctor marveled at the fact that she was still able to walk around.
And here is where Korrie’s story diverges from the typical colorectal cancer patient. A typical colorectal early onset colorectal cancer patient is misdiagnosed more than a couple times and goes through more than two doctors before finding out they had cancer. Korrie’s doctor wanted to schedule a colonoscopy, “Just to be safe.”
They would find a tumor in her colon. She was a stage I colorectal cancer patient at the age of 40.
Her doctors were incredulous. They were sure she must have had a relative with colorectal cancer – but she didn’t. There was no family history of cancer. In fact, Korrie had never even known someone with cancer.
Surgery would follow. But by “being safe” they had caught the cancer early. She would not need radiation or chemotherapy.
In Korrie’s words, Cancer has given her a strength she did not know she had and a desire to share her story with others. When her treatment was finished, things had happened so quickly that she felt she didn’t get a full grasp of everything that was going on. Being of an academic and research-oriented mind, she strived to learn more about the different aspects of treatment she went through and her response, physically and emotionally. As an advocate, she wants to reach out to other early age onset cancer patients to let them know they can find that strength as well.
As of the writing of this piece Korrie has been NED (No Evidence of Disease) since 2019. And she remains as optimistic as ever.