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Amanda Webb’s life took an unexpected turn when she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer while she was 31 weeks pregnant. Image Provided by Fight Colorectal Cancer
  • Colorectal cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death in men under 50 years old and the second leading cause of cancer death in females under 50.
  • Amanda Webb shares her journey of being diagnosed with early-onset stage 4 colon cancer while seven months pregnant with her first child.
  • Screenings, such as colonoscopy, can help prevent and detect colon cancer.

While six months pregnant, Amanda Webb felt healthy and strong as she carried on her usual routine of running and biking.

But a few weeks later, her life took a turn she never expected.

Because she was 36 years old, she was considered an advanced age for pregnancy, which meant her doctors recommended genetic screening of the baby. The results initially suggested Trisomy 13, a rare chromosome abnormality in the baby.

“Babies don’t typically live longer than a week with that and have severe medical issues, so for about a week, we grappled with the potential that we might have to terminate a wanted pregnancy,” Webb told Healthline.

However, a follow-up test of her amniotic fluid showed that the baby was healthy. Her doctors informed her that sometimes cancer cells in a woman can cause false positives in a genetic screening test.

Because a few years earlier Webb was diagnosed with stage IA malignant melanoma after having a mole removed, her doctors ordered further testing.

She went to a melanoma clinic for a more in-depth mole check, but nothing concerning showed up. For extra precaution, the clinic ordered an MRI, which detected tumors on Webb’s liver.

“Initially, they thought they were benign and possibly grew during pregnancy, but then things started to get really expedited,” Webb said.

She was referred to a high risk obstetrician who admitted her to the hospital for a few days, so she could quickly undergo a CT scan, ultrasound, colonoscopy, and biopsy.

On May 20, 2021, at 31 weeks pregnant, just shy of her 37th birthday, Webb was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

While a previous history of several cancers is associated with colon cancer, malignant melanoma is not a common one, said Carla Justiniano, MD, a colorectal surgeon at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

“Being pregnant is really what found the cancer,” Webb said.

Because Webb was far enough into her pregnancy, her doctors assured her that she could undergo the same treatment plan that she would if she weren’t pregnant.

“I didn’t have to do what some pregnant women with cancer have to do in making a decision of starting treatment while pregnant, or finishing out the pregnancy first, or not finishing the pregnancy,” said Webb.

Unlike women who are not pregnant, she received her first three chemotherapy treatments while staying in the hospital under the care of antepartum staff who monitored the baby.

“Then I had my C-section to deliver Levi at about 37 weeks,” she said.

Three weeks after her son was born, Webb had five more rounds of chemotherapy and then surgery, which removed the entire right lobe of her liver and 20% of her colon. She then underwent five more rounds of chemotherapy.

“I feel really lucky and am absolutely amazed at what [my doctors] were able to accomplish in a matter of seven months,” said Webb.

“I was undergoing treatment for months before I knew that a lot of people with stage 4 diagnosis aren’t treated to be cured when it comes to colorectal cancer; a lot of them are on chemo for life.”

After finishing treatment while being a new mom, Webb said the adjustment to her new reality was more than she expected.

“I thought after finishing treatment it would kind of be a flip of the switch, and things would go back to the way they were, and that was a joke on me,” she said.

“After finishing treatment and being so used to being in fight mode, you’re released back into civilian life, but cancer is all the sudden a huge part of who you are. It was difficult to navigate that and unpack the trauma.”

She found comfort on social media by following different nonprofits affiliated with colorectal cancer. Stories from others going through cancer, as well as survivors, brought her hope.

“I wasn’t ready to be transparent on social media about what I was going through…but it was such a huge motivator for me to see these people who had gone through the good, bad, and the ugly,” said Webb.

When the organization Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC) hosted a local northern California hike, she went.

“I just felt like those are my people. Worst club; best members,” she said.

In 2023, she went with Fight CRC to Washington DC, to participate in the Call-on Congress, which pushes policymakers to make changes regarding colorectal cancer.

After she returned, she became a 2023–2024 ambassador for the organization. Since then, she went back to DC, led an annual colorectal cancer awareness run with her local run club, and shared her story to spread awareness.

“For me, talking about it helps,” Webb said. “I’m not one to be front and center…but if getting on the stage makes people aware that this can happen to young people and pregnant women that consider themselves healthy, then I’ll do it.”

With the American Cancer Society (ACS) reporting that colorectal cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death in men under 50 years old and the second leading cause of cancer death in women under 50, Webb takes to heart spreading awareness about early detection and benefits of early colonoscopies.

“The issue with the early onset group is it’s tough for us to get the access to the screenings when we have symptoms,” she said. “People are getting diagnosed with IBS, and for some reason, a lot of people are being gaslighted by primary care providers instead of sent for a colonoscopy because everyone thinks it’s still in that older age group, and then we’re diagnosed at later stages.”

In the years leading up to her diagnosis, she experienced minor symptoms, such as frequent bowel movements and not feeling like she fully emptied her bowel. She chalked these up to being a runner and having a high metabolism. When she brought the symptoms up to her primary care doctor, they suggested she cut out dairy.

“You have to be your own advocate. You know yourself better than anyone else. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer if you think you should have that colonoscopy,” she said. “It’s the poop cancer that people don’t want to talk about, but we shouldn’t have to have digestive issues, something can be done about it.”

Colonoscopy still remains the standard of care and can be lifesaving, said Cathy Eng,MD, director of Fight CRC and director of the Young Adults Cancers Program at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

“[Remember] 45 is the new screening age,” she told Healthline. “If you have a first-degree relative, please start screening 10 years earlier than your relative’s diagnosis. Also important for others to learn about their family history.”

However, she added that while many people think colorectal cancer is hereditary, the majority of cases are sporadic.

“[This] is likely explained by a birth cohort effect where only persons born after the 1950s experienced the increasing rates of colorectal cancer, meaning these people have had different exposures to foods and environmental factors that impact the microbiome and inflammation in their colon, which are thereby thought to drive carcinogenesis,” Justiniano told Healthline.

Because early-stage colon cancer often doesn’t show any symptoms, she stressed the importance of screening.

“Patients with a diagnosis, especially when caught at screening, are often in disbelief because they feel fine, but in fact, many colon cancer patients are caught early and have zero symptoms, which highlights the importance of a screening colonoscopy,” she said.

When caught early, colon cancer is often curable.

“There are many cancers that we cannot screen for, but colorectal cancer is not one of those, and thus we should be appreciative of that and take advantage of it,” said Justiniano.

“If patients got their colonoscopies as per guidelines, the incidence of advanced or late-stage colorectal cancer among patients older than 45 should be much lower than it is now, and therefore survival would be much better.”

Fight CRC offers a free, medically-reviewed colorectal cancer screening quiz, which can help assess your risk. It also provides guidance on how to discuss screening options with your doctor.