She's on a mission to make colon cancer famous.
Tech entrepreneur Brooks Bell ducked into a bathroom during a conference in Half Moon Bay in November 2018 and spotted the first warning sign that something was wrong: blood in her stool. With her heart racing, she called her doctor from her hotel room and asked what to do.
Two months, three doctors and a colonoscopy later, Bell, who is now 42, learned that she had colon cancer—stage 3 colon cancer, to be specific. While the 2.5 cm tumor in her sigmoid colon (the area just above the rectum) was still “relatively small,” she says, “it had already spread into my lymph system.”
Even if she successfully fought off the cancer, she would always have a history of cancer—and the fear of recurrence. “There would always be the unknown in front of me,” she explains.
However, she knew it could have been so much worse. With her husband, Jesse Lipson, by her side, Bell began the next step in her cancer journey: treatment. She successfully weathered the twin challenges of surgery and high-dose chemotherapy. And they were daunting challenges too. After surgeons removed 10 inches of her colon, she got a brief respite: an anniversary trip with Lipson to New Zealand. Then, Bell received an infusion of high-dose chemotherapy every three weeks for three months. She developed a sensitivity to cold, cramps in her hands, nausea, and of course, there was the overwhelming fatigue.
“I would basically transition from the bed to the couch back to the bed,” she remembers. “I felt like, this is what a 90-year-old feels like. You just feel like a shell of your former self.”
Now, almost four years later, Bell is fired up and ready to help others learn more about colon cancer—and how to prevent it. A self-proclaimed "colonoscopy enthusiast," Bell launched Lead From Behind, an organization with the mission to “make colon cancer famous.” They’re working to build awareness of the need for colon cancer screening and early detection. Her goal, she says, is "to inspire a million colonoscopies in young people over the next decade."
As part of the effort, she persuaded Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds to get on board. She reached out to Reynolds’ agency Maximum Effort. Reynolds and fellow actor Rob McElhenney not only agreed to get colonoscopies, but they shared their experiences on video to generate more awareness of the cause.
When Bell first called her doctor from that hotel room, “The doctor said, ‘It’s not a big deal. You probably just have a hemorrhoid,’” Bell recalls now. “She just brushed it off.”
Since Bell, who was 38 at the time, was decades younger than the average age of people typically diagnosed with colon cancer, the odds were that the doctor was right. A second doctor came to the same conclusion. But the blood kept appearing, off and on, every couple of days, for two months. Worried and unsatisfied with the responses she’d gotten, Bell finally called a specialist—a gastroenterologist. It took two months of bloody stools, a consultation with the specialist and a colonoscopy to find the tumor that changed her life.
“This was my body. I was the one who was taking the risk by not dealing with this,” she says. “So I had to advocate for myself.”
And she wants to encourage you to speak up if you ever notice something that’s not quite right as well.
Related: Colon Cancer Is One of the Most Common Cancers In the United States—Here Are the Top Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For
View the original article to see embedded media.
A colonoscopy is a procedure in which a doctor threads a long, flexible tube (called a colonoscope) up into the colon. A video camera on the end of the tube produces images of the inside of the colon. If the doctor spots any polyps or other suspicious-looking cells, they can go ahead and remove them during the procedure.
In general, colorectal cancer rates have been declining since the mid-1980s. However, it’s still the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Also, colon cancer cases have continued to rise among younger people. The American Cancer Society notes that the rates of colorectal cancer have increased among people under 50 by 1 to 2%
In 2021, in response to the increase, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lowered the age recommendation for first screening from 50 to 45. So, if you’re 45 or older and you haven’t scheduled your first colonoscopy yet, Bell wants you to tackle that task right away. (And find out if anyone in your family has a history of colorectal cancer or other conditions that might raise your risk.)
“You get some great pictures of what’s going on in there,” Bell jokes. “And you get the day off.”
Related: Are You at Risk for Pancreatic Cancer? Here's Everything You Need to Know About Screening, Early Signs and Treatment
But on a more serious note, she explains that colonoscopies are an important preventive tool. They can detect polyps before they can become cancerous—and allow doctors to remove them.
“Colonoscopies prevent colon cancer,” she says succinctly. “And they’re awesome.”
Even if you’re too young to qualify for a colonoscopy screening, Bell wants you to pay attention to your body. Don’t brush off signs that something could be wrong.
When Bell was diagnosed in 2019, she was only 38. She wouldn't have been considered a candidate for a colonoscopy even if the recommended age had been 45 at that time. Nor did she have any family history of colon cancer that might have prompted her doctors to recommend early screening.
But she didn’t ignore the signs that something was amiss just because she was young. Even though she didn’t get screened before her cancer developed, the colonoscopy did confirm that something indeed was wrong—and it put her on the road to recovery.
Bell had to figure out how to make it through treatment and the months after concluding treatment—and she did.
“For me, a big source of fear was uncertainty about the disease,” she says. “I coped with the uncertainty by consuming as much research data as I could, even if what I learned was distressing. Gaining knowledge about the disease is what gave me a sense of control and helped me get engaged with my treatment more actively—and also built a deeper relationship with my doctors.”
Embracing a healthy lifestyle was another way of reasserting control over her life. She wanted to boost the nutrition in her diet, so she took a knife skills class, bought new pots and pans, and learned to cook after a lifetime of getting by making scrambled eggs in the microwave. She trained for a triathlon because she learned that exercise would decrease the risk of the recurrence of her cancer.
However, what worked for Bell might not work for you. You have to find your own coping strategies if you’re diagnosed with cancer and are embarking upon treatment. As Bell notes, “Everyone’s cancer journey is unique.”
But she adds, “Get as much stress out of your life as you can while you go through this journey. Surround yourself with people who love you. Shed as many responsibilities as you can, so that you can use up all your energy toward healing.”
Related: What Causes Breast Cancer, Exactly? Doctors Explain What We Know—and How Testing Can Help
Even when Bell was completely exhausted during chemotherapy, she dreamed of the day when her energy would return.
“That’s the currency of a good life: having the energy to really live it,” she says.
You don’t know exactly what the future will hold, but you can still look forward to it. “The only way to (get to) the other side is through it,” says Bell.
Next up: 25 Facts About Cancer That Could Help You Save a Life