A Danbury, Conn. woman had attentive gynecology and gastroenterology care, and robotic-assisted surgery and chemotherapy to beat stage II colon cancer
Catarina (Ana) Costa was 44, loving life with her family, and about to get life-changing news. At just 44 years old, she was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Abdominal pain, a full feeling, and change in bowel habits can be symptoms of colon cancer
“I had been having weird symptoms for a few months. I had discomfort and pain in my lower belly and left side of my back,” Ana said. “I also had a constant full feeling, and sometimes had trouble going to the bathroom, which was not normal for me.”
Ana had an ovarian cyst in the past that caused similar symptoms. She went to see her gynecologist, who confirmed she did not have a cyst again. She also had other tests and imaging, including a CT scan of her abdomen that were all normal.
Ana went on a family trip to Texas hoping her symptoms would go away, but also with a nagging feeling that something might be wrong.
“I kept thinking my symptoms were related to my diet and that I needed to change what I was eating and lose weight. But I also knew something was not right,” Ana said.
When Ana’s symptoms persisted, her primary care provider recommended she see a gastroenterologist.
Ana lives in Danbury, Conn., and went to see Dr. Steven Gorelick at Nuvance Health Medical Practice Gastroenterology Danbury. He recommended Ana have a colonoscopy to investigate what might be causing her symptoms.
Doctors specializing in gastroenterology perform colonoscopies to see inside the colon using a colonoscope, a thin, flexible tube with a tiny light and video camera at the end of it.
Learn more about colonoscopy screenings in this video: See what it’s like to get a colonoscopy screening
A colonoscopy is the most effective test for colon cancer
Dr. Gorelick could not complete the colonoscopy because he found a partially obstructing mass in Ana’s left colon, likely cancer.
Even with the feeling that something might be wrong, Ana was not expecting to hear she might have colon cancer.
“I was shocked,” Ana said. “I thought they would find something that explained my symptoms, but I did not think it would be cancer.”
“I thought about my future and what it would look like,” Ana said. “I also thought about my kids.” Ana has two children, ages 22 and 19.
But Ana decided not to think about the “what ifs” and deal with what was actually happening. She digested the information and said, “Okay, what do we do next?”
Emergency colonic stent to treat obstruction in the large intestine from colon cancer
Ana was scheduled to see Dr. Marc Casasanta next. Dr. Casasanta is a colorectal surgeon who specializes in minimally invasive procedures.
Things progressed quickly after the colonoscopy. The tumor was causing a blockage in Ana’s colon, which was the size of a pencil because of the mass. She had severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
“We decided to bring Ana to the emergency department for evaluation. We discussed the possibility of doing surgery immediately to remove the cancer. We decided to stabilize her by placing a colonic stent to treat the obstructed part of the large intestine,” Dr. Casasanta explained.
An advanced gastroenterologist placed the stent. Ana recovered at Danbury Hospital for a couple of days, went home, and then went back two weeks later for surgery.
Robotic-assisted colorectal surgery to remove colon cancer
Dr. Casasanta performed a robotic-assisted laparoscopic low anterior resection. He operated through small incisions to remove the tumor and about 10 inches of the colon.
“The tumor was more than eight centimeters, which is fairly big,” said Dr. Casasanta, who is also an associate professor of surgery at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. “Ana did very well during surgery and was home after three days.”
Chemotherapy to treat colon cancer
The cancer had thankfully not spread to other parts of her body. Ana was ultimately diagnosed with high-risk stage II colon cancer and needed oral chemotherapy for six months. She went under the care of Dr. Kamila Bakirhan at the Praxair Cancer Center at Danbury Hospital.
“The chemotherapy was not so bad except for one side effect that made my hands and feet feel like they were on fire, it was really painful,” Ana said. “It was very difficult to do things with my hands. Even simple things like holding a pen were painful.”
“The only comfortable shoes I could wear were Crocs, even to work. My boss was great because he just wanted me to be comfortable,” said Ana, who is a paralegal.
“It was so painful in the moment, but when I look back now, I think, ‘wow, I got through it,’” Ana said.
“Ana had quite bothersome skin toxicity from the chemotherapy. But she is a trooper and managed to get through it without interruptions in her treatment. She is expected to do very well in the future, and we will keep close eyes on her,” said Dr. Bakirhan.
Ana had to eat a very low-fiber diet while her digestive tract adjusted to having a shorter colon. High-fiber foods increase movement through the digestive system. She has been able to incorporate most foods back into her diet but still avoids very high-fiber foods.
“My diet is manageable now, it’s just something I had to get used to,” Ana said.
Recovery after colon cancer
Ana is turning 46 in July 2023 and is still cancer free. She said she feels “really good.” Even though every time she has an unusual pain it is hard not to think “Do I have cancer?”
She will have abdominal CT scans every six months and colonoscopies every two years.
“I am definitely going to stay on top of my checkups,” Ana said.
Ana said she sees life differently now and is “just grateful to wake up in the morning.”
She is looking forward to making memories with her family, which is the most important thing to her.
Ana is thankful for her entire family, including her parents, husband and children.
“I think I cried once since I found out I had cancer. I felt so strong and supported because of my family,” Ana said. Ana was born in Portugal, which is where a big part of her family still lives.”
Ana is also thankful for her care team.
“Yes, my experience was painful. But everyone was great. They put me at ease and helped me feel super comfortable,” Ana said.
Ana said she “feels lucky” that her doctors continued to evaluate her even though tests were coming back normal. She was planning to get a colonoscopy screening at age 45, which is when the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends people at average risk start screenings.
Ana was only 44 when she had symptoms.
“Listen to your body and get checked, even if you think you are too young for cancer or too young to start screenings,” Ana said.
Related content: What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?
Colon cancer is increasing in young adults
“Ana’s experience illustrates why colonoscopies are so important. Many times, other tests and imaging will not reveal colon cancer. A colonoscopy is the best test to detect it,” said Dr. Gorelick, also the system chair of the Digestive Health Institute at Nuvance Health.
“Even though Ana is young, her experience is consistent with what the country is seeing lately and the trend of younger people developing colorectal cancer,” Dr. Casasanta said. “She had a great attitude and was a model patient. She was very motivated and determined to conquer cancer. And, she did.”
- Find a gastroenterologist in Kingston, Poughkeepsie or Rhinebeck, NY or Sharon, CT.
- Book a pre-colonoscopy screening appointment in Danbury or Norwalk, CT or Carmel, NY.
Disclaimer: Outcomes from cancer vary from person to person. No individual results should be seen as typical.