Mom Diagnosed With Cancer After Pregnancy Urges Parents to Be Their Own Health Advocate

When a New Hampshire mom complained of severe pain during her third pregnancy, doctors dismissed her. But 17 days after giving birth, she found out she had stage 4 colorectal cancer.

When Charlotte Ngarukiye was expecting her third child in 2018, she knew something was wrong. "I kept feeling more and more pain, a pain I had never experienced with my other pregnancies," she recently told Good Morning America. She said she "knew right away" during her pregnancy that "something was really off." She talked to her OB-GYN about the pain and even went to other specialists. Each told her to "wait until after the baby was born."

"I think they didn't think I was serious about the pain that I was in and I think everything was just masked by the pregnancy," the 34-year-old explained to GMA. "They'd just attribute [symptoms] like bleeding to my pregnancy."

But after giving birth to her son, who she named Maxwell, the symptoms didn't let up. So Ngarukiye saw a gastroenterologist who diagnosed her with colorectal cancer. After undergoing additional testing, the mom of three learned that the cancer had spread to her liver and lungs. It was stage four, which meant it was too late for an operation.

"I remember feeling some sort of relief that I knew what was wrong, even though that sounds crazy," she said. "I was in so much pain at that point that all I could hope was there would be a solution now for the pain."

While Ngarukiye, like many of us, thought of colorectal cancer as a disease that people get when they're in their 50s or older, the fact is the incidence of colorectal cancer has been increasing 1 to 3 percent annually for people younger than age 50 while decreasing in older individuals. In fact, since 1994, cases of young-onset colorectal cancer—defined as colorectal cancer diagnosed before the age of 50—have increased by 51 percent. In addition, research by the American Cancer Society (ACS) has found that people younger than age 55 are 58 percent more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage disease than older adults, making a cure more difficult.

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The trend has alarmed experts so much that in 2018, ACS changed its recommendations for the start of colorectal screening from age 50 to age 45 for individuals at average risk.

Nadine Jackson McCleary, M.D., Ngarukiye's oncologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston explained to ABC, "Now if you're born in 1990 you're twice as likely to be diagnosed with this disease as if you were born in 1950, yet you're more likely to be diagnosed with advanced disease compared to an older adult who is diagnosed. There's something about this cancer that is driving that surge and also driving the aggression that we're seeing at presentation."

Dr. McCleary has guided Ngarukiye through nearly 30 rounds of chemotherapy over the past two years. The New Hampshire mom has also taken part in two clinical trials and undergone radiation. Nonetheless, her tumors have continued to grow, and Ngarukiye made a decision earlier this year to stop treatment.

"I try to cherish my moments with my kids and my husband," she shared with GMA. "I had no clue that someone in their 30s could get this disease. Now I know there is a whole community of people like me and that it's not uncommon, but a rising trend."

Ngarukiye had no family history of colorectal cancer and was otherwise healthy before her diagnosis. Those are just two of the reasons that she is urging other women to remember that they know their bodies best—and to be your own health advocate when something doesn't feel right.

"I want women to know, especially pregnant women, that if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. You know your body best," she told GMA. "I was shy to ask for certain things and I didn't know there were certain things to ask for, so be educated about what you can do and what's available to you. I wish I had pushed more. The doctor I saw at the end [at diagnosis], who really listened to me, within two minutes he was telling me I needed an exam."

Dr. McCleary pointed out that her patient was told it was unlikely there was something serious because she was young and pregnant, "as if the body can't have two processes happening at the same time."

Ngarukiye's heartbreaking diagnosis goes to show that it's time for health care providers to think about their patients in a more nuanced, holistic away, as opposed to leaning into false social messaging that being young and/or expecting undoubtedly equates to perfect health. And with hope, her story and message that people need to trust their health intuition—and to speak up—will not only inform and empower people but save lives.

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