You can imagine our surprise when we sat down with Reagan and asked, "How did you feel when you were diagnosed with colon cancer at age 22?" and her immediate response: "Relieved." But for someone with colon cancer running through her family and years worth of symptoms and pain, she was happy to finally have answers. Read on to learn more about Miss December, Reagan Barnett, a great spokesperson and advocate for colorectal cancer, and especially Lynch Syndrome!
Name: Reagan Barnett
Diagnosis: Stage II colon cancer in July 2008
Age at Diagnosis: 22
ON SURVIVING CANCER:
Where were you when you found out you had colon cancer?
I had just woken up from a colonoscopy; I was still drugged.
How did you feel?
Relieved. I had symptoms for five years. I was ready for someone to find it.
What were your symptoms?
I started having rectal bleeding when I was 17 years old. I had severe abdominal pain and gained 60 lbs. I was really tired and weak for about five years. When I started seeing bleeding I went straight to GI doc but he didn’t want to listen. I knew my family history (14 people in my family had colon cancer) and made him do a colonoscopy. But the problem was that he didn’t biopsy. My cancer actually didn't come from a polyp - it came from inside the intestinal wall. Because the doctor hadn't biopsied, no other doctor wanted to do one for years - or any other scans or x-rays. I was called a hypochondriac many times. I was told that my intestines probably had a tear, that I had food allergies, it was something that I ate, etc. After the first year of being turned away so many times, I didn't see any other doctors for three to five years. I figured maybe it was food allergies so I didn't eat processed food, watched my diet and took supplements. In January 2008 I started getting worse again and I knew it was cancer but I didn't have insurance. I took out a supplemental policy but had to wait until July to see a doctor. In May before that month I stopped going to the restroom; my colon was 100% blocked. I stopped eating solids and stuck with smoothies and soups all while passing big blood clots. Finally in July when my insurance kicked in I saw a doctor again - different doctor same practice as the first guy. He didn't want to hear symptoms or my family history and was certain I had ulcerative colitis - but said he would do a scope. When I woke up from the scope he said "We couldn't finish it." Apparently I was right.
What did your treatment involve?
I was headed to surgery the day of my colonoscopy and had a total colectomy. The next day I had emergency surgery and a temporary ileostomy put in. Eight weeks later, the ileostomy was reversed. But then I had an infection/abscess on my liver and they had to drain that. The infection spread to my lung, they tried to drain it but it came back so I had lung surgery after that. I chose not to have chemo or radiation; I was confident they got it all. Four surgeries in four months was enough.
Worst thing about treatment?
The worst procedure was liver drain and the iliostomy bag wasn't fun. Relationships were hard in the midst too.
What got you through cancer treatment? Any goals or mindsets that plowed you through?
It was a hard experience, but a very positive experience. I saw reasons for it all; I saw possibilities of things getting better.
Does cancer run in your family?
I had hereditary cancer - Lynch Syndrome. Have a very strong family history - 14 people on one side have had Lynch-related cancers. Nobody has been officially genetically tested, but we've done tumor testing. Our history is so strong that even if the test negative, we know we have it.
I didn’t know about Lynch Syndrome until I got sick and other family members got tested after that. I hadn’t heard of it until I got colon cancer. But my grandmother had colon, uterine and lung cancer. Two of her sisters died of colon cancer. My aunt had uterine, etc. I was the youngest. That's why I'm now a Young Adult Representative for Lynch Syndrome International.
WHAT HAS SURVIVING CANCER TAUGHT YOU…
About your body?
It can put up with a lot more than I thought it would. A lot of pain that I never thought I could deal with, I dealt with.
It’s taught me to appreciate things a lot more. Things that I thought mattered - don't really matter. It changed a lot of my goals as far as what I want to do with my life. I’ve made a huge career change since cancer. I was going into archeology; I’m now going to med school and want to do genetic cancer research.
They’ll be there for you when other people won’t and put up with with a lot of your crap. I was a horrible patient; I don’t tolerate pain well.
How has cancer changed your life for the better?
It’s why I met my husband – he is a cancer survivor too and was a good friend through it all. Cancer has made everything more beautiful and more fun, and life means so much more.
Do you do anything now that you didn’t thanks to cancer?
I white water kayak thanks to First Descents. Also, after treatment I picked up ballroom dancing. It was one way of doing something active that didn’t kill me and it got me out of the house.
What do you hope your message and survival story will do for others?
I hope people realize colon cancer is not just an old person’s disease. If you have symptoms, see a doctor. Doctors, if a young person comes in with the symptoms, don’t not treat them because they’re young. I hope people don’t shy away from getting checked. If you catch it early, it’s so easy to have the rest of your life. I live a pretty normal life now.
RANDOM INFO ABOUT REAGAN
What do you do? I am in grad school and am a patient speaker about Lynch Syndrome. My mom and I also do thermography screening for early breast cancer - thermal energy can show vascular flow to a tumor.
First job ever? Zaxby’s fast-food restaurant
Hobbies? White water kayaking, writing, oil painting, camping – outdoorsy stuff.
Where are you from? Mobile, AL