The 2018 Race For Research Honoree
Stephen ‘s Life Changes
Hello, my name is Stephen Estrada. I have been fortunate to live in Colorado for about 9 years now and it really is one of my favorite places in America. I have laughed, cried, learned, and overcame more here than during any other time of my life.
3 and half years ago, I was living my best life. I had a career I was excited about, my relationship was better than ever, and I couldn’t wait to see where my path would take me. However, a nagging pain in my abdomen reminded me daily that things weren’t perfect with my health. When I ate, I would bloat to the point of pain. When I tried to use the restroom, I was usually unsuccessful. When I looked in the mirror, I could see pounds melting off of my already thin frame. Something wasn’t right.
I knew I couldn’t continue living that way. But I had no prior experience with hospitals and doctors…so I did the only thing I knew: I went to the ER. Twice, in fact. Both times I was turned away by doctors with a misdiagnosis of constipation. I explained that I knew my grandmother had colorectal cancer when she was in her 30’s…but I was ignored. I was told, “you are too young for colon cancer.” I know that to be false now.
Colorectal cancer is not a disease that only affects older men. It is a disease that is coming
I was diagnosed in the summer of 2014, at the age of 28, by my primary care physician. I remember hearing the words "terminal stage 4 colon cancer"... I remember the room spinning....feeling like I was underwater...unable to breathe, understand, or respond. The physician's assistant was crying. I was crying. The world seemed to slow down, allowing me to catch my breath. "Am I going to die?" I asked. The silence was answer enough.
"Stephen," My Doctor said, "this is serious."
And that's how it started. My cancer had broken through my colon wall and leaked onto my mesentery. The tumor entangled itself into arteries and veins that could not be touched surgically. I was inoperable. I was as close to a dead man walking as you could get.
The First Treatment
I was later told by my old oncologist that I harbored a genetic condition called lynch syndrome which made me susceptible to not just colorectal cancer, but several other cancers as well. “But, in all honesty,” my oncologist said, “you may not have the chance to worry about getting another cancer. You are inoperable. You may not live past 30.”
That was unacceptable. It remained unacceptable as I underwent an emergency right hemicolectomy—a removal of the right side of my colon along with the primary tumor. It stayed unacceptable when I went through 6 months of the chemo, FOLFOX. And it continued to be unacceptable as I underwent a procedure called NANOKNIFE that, in an attempt to kill the mesenteric mass, nearly killed me. TO THIS DAY, death by cancer is unacceptable.
You are Fired!
I couldn’t remain with my first oncologist. She was detached and refused to think outside of the box. I knew that I wasn’t a typical colorectal cancer patient. I knew that Lynch made my cancer’s genetics different than most cancers. I knew that if I wanted to live, I needed to take back the power and do what I thought was right. So I fired my oncologist.
A New Start
I had been researching on my own where I needed to be. The answer seemed clear: I needed to go to the University of Colorado Anschutz Cancer Center. It was there that I met my current oncologist, Dr. Messersmith. He is everything my last oncologist wasn’t: kind, caring, and invested in my future. We discussed genetics, biomarkers, lynch syndrome…I couldn’t believe how different he was from my last provider.
The path forward seemed clear: because of Lynch Syndrome, I was a perfect candidate for an immunotherapy trial. When someone doesn’t know what Immunotherapy is, I like to tell them that chemo is like an atom bomb. It goes off and destroys the bad cells AND the good cells. But immunotherapy is like a sniper rifle. Your body goes after it’s target, cancer cells, and that’s it. I was sold. Anything would beat chemotherapy again. And even if I died during this trial…I died giving my body to science. And hopefully, that would benefit someone else one day.
I knew from day 1 that the immunotherapy was working. As it dripped into my body, the tumor in my mesentery started aching. An ache turned into twitching…and the twitching turned into an incredible burning pain. No drug helped the pain, but I knew at that moment that we were onto something incredible.
My first scan showed dramatic shrinkage of my tumor. The next year of scans showed a steady reduction in the tumor, until one day, it was no longer there. Today I am considered a complete responder to my drug and as of February 2018, I will have been cancer free for one year.
And THAT, I can accept.
Can We Help the Others?
Because I was my own advocate and did my own research, I am here today. But I cannot tell you how angry it makes me that my diagnoses are becoming more common in young adults. Recent studies show a sharp spike in new colorectal cancer cases in the under 40's age bracket. With age taken into account, people born in the 90's have double the risk of colon cancer and QUADRUPLE the risk of rectal cancer when compared to people born in the 1950's. Did you know that overall, colorectal cancer cases has dropped since the mid-1980's? But in the age bracket of 20-29, colorectal cancer rates have increased by 2.4% a year and by 1% a year for those aged 30-39. Because colorectal symptoms can be misinterpreted as a lesser problem, young adults are 58% more likely to be diagnosed at a late stage compared to older people.
And still...we, as young adults, are having to beg for colonoscopies. We have to fight insurance companies that won't listen. We have to plead to be taken seriously. And for some of us...it's too late by the time someone really hears us. As I stated earlier, when I first started having symptoms I went to the ER twice and was turned away. When I asked for pain management help, I was treated like a junkie looking for pills and asked to leave the hospital. All the while my own body was turning against me.
The world isn't ready to look at early onset cancers in younger adults. Children with cancer, as horrible as that is, are taken care of in every way. The child shows up to appointments that are set for them in a hospital that is dedicated to them. There are toys, video games, superheroes...distractions from the reality of cancer. When you are over 50 with cancer, while it's no easier, the older generations generally have more time to prepare for an event of this magnitude. Most older people have been working their entire lives and hopefully have their careers settled, money saved, and a loving partner who will hopefully be there in sickness and in health.
Help us Fight Cancer
But when you are a young adult who is diagnosed with cancer....that career you wanted? Gone. That relationship you thought was perfect becomes strained under the weight of cancer. That house you wanted to buy? Probably not going to happen. After all...cancer isn't cheap...and chances are you weren't saving for a catastrophic event like a cancer diagnosis.
And that is why events like The Race for Research are so important. This one is so important. We, as a community need to come together and let the world know that this. Is. Unacceptable. And we will not stop talking,
Thank you for being a part of the Race for Research. With your voice and advocacy, we can stop cancer from taking more of our friends and family. With your commitment to research, we will find a way. We will find a cure. And one day, we will be raising children without the fear of cancer looming.