WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Anne Heimel was only 39 years old when she learned she had stage 3 rectal cancer.
“I got in bed and cried myself to sleep because I couldn't believe it,” she said.
The tumor was found during a colonoscopy.
Part of the shock is that she was working toward getting healthier.
“I had been losing weight. I had lost 40 pounds. I was so excited and come to find out, part of that was the tumor,” Heimel said.
“Any changes in bowl habits, or pain can be one, anything unusual out of the norm, should be investigated,” Novant Health GI Oncology Nurse Navigator Julie Pope said.
Pope says Heimel’s experience is becoming more common in young adults.
“It is a concern because our patients that are younger are coming in with a more severe cancer,” she said.
Heimel’s road to recovery included a year of exhausting treatment.
She fought then and is still fighting now, only this time, she’s fighting to eliminate the stigma associated with rectal cancer.
“A lot of people, even rectal cancer survivors, will not say that they have rectal cancer, they will say they have colon cancer, or they will say colorectal cancer,” she said. “It’s a part of the body and it should not have that ick factor that people tend to have when they hear it.”
To help in spreading awareness, Heimel successfully requested that Gov. Roy Cooper and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines sign proclamations declaring March Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
Heimel says she shares her story to encourage people to fight for a colonoscopy.
Pope, who was one of Heimel’s nurse navigators during her journey, is proud of the work Heimel is doing on behalf of the GI cancer community.
“Her voice is loud and strong and if anything, I want other cancer patients and survivors to see her strength, how she really became strong after being so weak, so yeah, she's a survivor,” Pope said.
Last year, The American Cancer Society changed screening guidelines to begin at age 45 instead of 50, but people with a higher risk of colorectal cancer may need to be screened earlier.