For many people, cancer is a difficult topic to broach. But according to cancer survivor Megan Leahy, the topic of colon cancer is even more taboo.
A longtime Fishers resident, Leahy, 42, was diagnosed with colon cancer in July. Without a history of cancer in the family, her diagnosis was a surprise that rattled the Leahy family. Now, Leahy’s mission is to tell her story and spread the word about the importance of getting screened for colon cancer.
Prior to her family’s move to Indiana from Illinois 14 years ago, Leahy worked in law enforcement. She had to retire to care for her newborn daughter, Ronyn, now 14 years old and a freshman at Fishers High School, who was born with a laryngeal cleft — a medical condition where the patient has an opening between their larynx and esophagus.
“My dad was a cop, my mom was a nurse,” Leahy said. “So, helping people has always been kind of our thing, which is why I’m trying to spread the word about the importance of talking about cancer. People need to know about it and not be afraid to talk about it.”
When the warning signs of cancer appeared, Leahy didn’t know what they meant.
“At first, I was just really tired and taking a lot of naps, which was weird because that’s not me,” she said. “I was also losing a lot of blood during my period. I told my mom about it last Christmas, and she recommended that I go see my doctor.”
In March, Leahy saw her primary care doctor for a yearly checkup. She mentioned her symptoms and had blood and stool tests run to check for abnormalities.
Leahy’s iron levels were extremely low, and doctors found blood in her stool — both indicators of a major gastrointestinal issue. Her doctor sent her to a gastrointestinal specialist, who ordered a colonoscopy in July. That day, Leahy received her diagnosis of colon cancer.
“I was diagnosed the Wednesday before we left for our first vacation in a while,” Leahy said. “It was diagnosed (on) Wednesday, oncologist appointment Thursday, surgeon meeting on Friday, and we left for vacation on Saturday. The kids found out while we were in Mexico.”
In August, Leahy had surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy treatments in September. Each round of chemo, Leahy said, brought about its own side effects.
“Every round has its own symptoms, like neuropathy, constipation, diarrhea, brain fog or dizziness,” Leahy said. “I did chemo every day for two weeks and then had a week off. But during that week off, I would have a number of different issues, like intense swelling in my knee or really bad constipation. But I think that’s what a lot of people don’t like to talk about with colon cancer, because it’s embarrassing to talk about your butt.”
The emotions surrounding Leahy’s diagnosis and post-cancer journey within the family were difficult, as expected. Leahy said that for her, the experience got lost in the process of going through the steps to heal.
“For me, personally, I still haven’t really dealt with the fact that I had cancer,” she said. “It was just one more thing to check off the list because I was so busy. But there’s a group called the Cancer Support Community, and they offer free counseling for patients and their families. Now that I’m coming to the end of my healing journey, I’ve been trying to mentally and emotionally deal with my diagnosis.”
Leahy’s husband, Tom, a senior forensic structural engineer at American Structurepoint Inc., was most upset that he couldn’t “fix” it.
“It’s been really hard for my husband because, as he says, he’s ‘a fixer,’” Leahy said. “That’s what he does for work, and he was upset that he couldn’t fix this. It’s hard for him to watch when I’m in pain.”
Leahy said that her children have done “as well as to be expected.” The key, Leahy said, is an open line of communication.
“I let both kids know what’s going on,” Leahy said. “It helps them not feel so in the dark.”
Leahy wants to spread awareness about the rising number of colon cancer cases in people under the recommended screening age of 50. As of now, there is no known cause of colon cancer.
“We don’t understand a lot about the causes, the biology or how to prevent early onset of the disease,” said Phil Daschner, a program director in the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Biology. “And that’s important to learn more about because it may affect (approaches for) the treatment and survivorship of early onset colon cancer.”
Leahy recommends people get screened for colon cancer at 45 years old or earlier.
“It’s important to get screened and to take care of yourself,” Leahy said. “Don’t put it off, especially moms. For those who are going through a diagnosis, be sure to advocate for yourself. If you feel like something is wrong or something needs to be done that hasn’t been done yet, tell someone. And stay positive. As hard as it is, stay positive and find someone that you can talk to — a fellow patient, a support group, a counselor, anything.”
To follow Leahy and her remission journey, follow @meganscancer on Instagram.
By the numbers
According to the American Cancer Society, there were 106,180 new cases of colon cancer in the U.S. in 2022.
From 2013 to 2017, incidence rates dropped by about 1 percent each year. But the downward trend is mostly in older adults and masks rising incidence among younger adults since at least the mid-1990s. From 2012 through 2016, it increased every year by 2 percent in people younger than 50 and 1 percent in people 50 to 64.