colon cancer awareness

Turning the Tide: A Decade of Reflection and Advocacy Since My Cancer Diagnosis

By: Anna Dahlgren
Colorectal Cancer Survivor and Advocate
Duluth, MN

It's been a decade since the words "you have cancer" pierced my reality. Sometimes, it feels as fresh as yesterday; other times, it seems like a lifetime ago. Life now bears little resemblance to what I envisioned before June 2014. Yet, when I attempt to imagine an alternate reality void of cancer's intrusion, I find myself at a loss. Surprisingly, my life has been enriched in ways I couldn't fathom. Isn't cancer synonymous with devastation? Make no mistake, cancer ranks among the most formidable adversaries one can face. I've mourned the loss of many dear friends to its relentless grasp. However, I can only speak to my own journey. Without cancer, I wouldn't be the person I am today.

Anna and Isaac through the years.

Anna with her son, Isaac, (left) after her diagnosis in 2014, and (right) in September 2023.

Taking it seriously

At 33, I noticed a faint trace of blood in my stool while at work. Many might brush such a sign aside, but I knew better. Blood in stool isn't normal. What I didn't realize then was that it could signify colon cancer. Thankfully, fate placed me in a clinic alongside my primary care provider, my guardian angel in human form. Upon confiding in her, she recommended a colonoscopy. Initially hesitant, I consented to her suggestion. We discussed potential causes—hemorrhoids, ulcerative colitis, perhaps Crohn's disease—but given my age, hemorrhoids seemed the likely culprit. With no other symptoms, I dismissed any concerns.

Emerging from the anesthesia post-colonoscopy, I could discern the gravity in my gastroenterologist's expression before she uttered a word. She spoke of removing a "nasty looking polyp." To me, that sounded promising. I assumed removal of the polyp meant resolution. Imagine my shock when she followed up by suggesting it might be cancer. I brushed off the notion; colon cancer at 33 with no family history? Surely not. Yet, three days later, confirmation arrived via a phone call. I had colon cancer. In that moment, regardless of what lay ahead, I knew life had irreversibly changed. A colon resection was the next step to ascertain if the cancer had spread. This marked the juncture where I grasped the critical importance of promptly consulting a doctor at the first sign of anything amiss. Remarkably, the rest of my colon and all lymph nodes were clear, sparing me the need for chemotherapy. Thanks to that swift action, within a month, I transitioned from diagnosis to eradication of any cancerous presence.

A different kind of survivor’s guilt

Now I was confronted with this new reality that I struggled to process. Everything had transpired in a whirlwind. Could I even consider myself a "survivor" when my journey paled in comparison to others? For the longest time, I couldn't bring myself to utter those words. I hadn't endured the typical hardships associated with cancer. Even now, a decade later, discussing my experience with fellow survivors remains challenging. Part of this reluctance stems from the rarity of being diagnosed at stage I, especially at my age. Too many young individuals I've encountered faced a diagnosis at later stages, and succumbed to the battle. I questioned what set me apart. The answer was evident: I worked in healthcare, and I was under the care of a doctor who refused to adhere to the notion that colon cancer was reserved for the elderly. Yet, it felt unjust that others were disregarded due to age until symptoms reached advanced stages. I felt compelled to share my story in hopes that others might be diagnosed early, as I was.

Anna being an advocate for colon cancer awareness

From left: Colorectal Cancer Alliance Walk to End Colon Cancer event in 2022, CancerCon 2023 presented by stupidcancer®, and Fight CRC's Call on Congress.

A continued journey of advocacy

Thus, began my journey of advocacy. I aligned with a local colon cancer advocacy organization, taking small steps to amplify my voice through local media outlets. Gradually, I expanded my reach, engaging on a national level, sharing my story across the United States with other survivors and caregivers. With each opportunity, I aimed to raise awareness among the public and healthcare providers alike: Colon cancer knows no age boundaries and can manifest with minimal symptoms.

In an unexpected turn, encountering cancer over the past decade has woven an undeniable thread of fulfillment into my life's tapestry. This journey has introduced me to an extraordinary array of individuals, from dedicated doctors and impassioned scientists to resilient patients and tireless advocates. 

Through these connections, I've formed bonds that surpass any initial expectations. The friendships I've nurtured are bound together by a common diagnosis. While there have been moments when I've questioned whether a decade of advocacy is enough, a single heartfelt message from someone moved to action by my words reignites my determination. While colon cancer doesn’t define me, it undeniably shapes a part of who I am today. Ignoring the impact of the past and simply moving forward seems impossible now. I feel a sense of obligation to those who are less fortunate, to persist in advocacy efforts while honoring the memory of those who have passed.

The positions and statements herein are based on Anna Dahlgren's experiences, thoughts and opinions. Please talk to your doctor regarding this important topic.


Read more stories about colorectal cancer awareness and screening.

See Anna’s first blog about becoming an advocate: 

Colorectal Cancer AwarenessAwarenessVolunteering

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