Teen Colorectal Cancer Roundtable

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Moderated by Danielle Ripley-Burgess, Fight CRC Chief Storyteller, Beyond Blue Editor, and a teen survivor herself. Danielle was diagnosed when she was just 17 years old and is now a two-time, 21-year survivor. 

It’s hard being a teenager facing cancer, whether you’re the patient or you have a parent who is facing a cancer diagnosis. The teenagers in our community are using their voices to share their stories, in hopes others hear them and know that they are not alone.

Meet the Teens:

Elizabeth, Joey, and Caroline Maschke: 

Elizabeth was 15; Joey was 13; and Caroline was 11 when their dad was diagnosed at age 47 with stage IIIb rectal cancer. Their dad, a full-time firefighter, and part-time ironworker was otherwise healthy and in excellent shape. The GI doctor found their dad’s tumor during a colonoscopy, which he had after showing signs and symptoms. 

Erin Verscheure 

On Aug. 31, 2016, at 18 years old, Erin was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer. She had just graduated high school and was thrown into the real world quickly. Her life before cancer included spending time with family and friends, working, starting college, and being a regular 18-year-old girl. She did not know that colorectal cancer was a reality, so she never even thought about researching it. Suddenly, she was diagnosed with a disease she knows nothing about. 

Ryan Shadle 

Ryan was just 19 years old when his dad Paul was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer in 2016 at age 44. Ryan, unfortunately, lost his dad to cancer in February 2021. Ryan is determined to continue his dad’s mission and advocate on his behalf as a 2022 Fight Colorectal Cancer ambassador. 

Chris Ganser Jr. 

Chris Jr. was just 12 years old when his dad was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer at 34. Unfortunately, his dad passed away in July 2018. Chris’ father was a huge advocate within the Fight Colorectal Cancer community and was one of the four founders of Climb for a Cure, which Chris Jr. now participates in every year in honor of his dad. 

Bo McDonald

Bo was just 13 years old when he received his colon cancer diagnosis. Bo had surgery to remove a cancerous mass, which was successful. After recovering from surgery, Bo had nine-months of chemotherapy to tackle the cancer that spread to his lymph nodes. Bo has not received chemotherapy for the past three years and says he is living life to the fullest. 

Where were you and how did you find out you had colon cancer?

Erin:

I was on my couch, I had just gotten home from my first college class. When I found out I had cancer I was extremely scared and cried for hours. My mom was my support system and helped me work through it and take it step by step. Everything was new and crazy. My doctor would always say that I am one in a million that I was diagnosed and still here. And I loved that. 

Bo:

I was in the emergency room. I went to go get a CT scan, and they saw something on the scan. They ran another test that saw a tumor. So, that is how I was diagnosed. At the moment, I remember seeing commercials about going to get screened for colon cancer, I'm like, “OK, that's normal.” And then, when they said that is what I had, I was just surprised. I did not know what was going on. 

How have your friends been throughout your diagnosis? Advice for friends?

Bo:

So, I think I had some pretty good friends because I think they actually cared about me. They hosted a fundraiser for me to have money to go through chemo. They had a big piece of paper that they had everyone in the school sign, which they gave to me along with some brackets, which made me feel loved. 

Erin:

I got diagnosed after graduation, so a lot of my friends were away at school. But, one of my close friends was home. She obviously did not understand what was happening, but she was the best. She did so many things with me. She would stay at my house for days. We would watch movies; she took me to a concert once; and more. She did everything she could to make me feel normal even with everything going on. 

How did you cope with having a parent with cancer? 

Joey:

I played a lot of Xbox and baseball; I still do. So, that was one of the ways. I didn’t necessarily turn to my friends. I was in an age group that really didn't understand what I was going through. It's not necessarily that they didn't have the maturity, but they just didn't understand. So, I kind of kept my emotions in, but I cried a lot. I think everybody does. 

Caroline:

I started playing volleyball. The year my dad was diagnosed was my first year ever playing. I played all the time. When I was sad, I would go out front and just hit the ball to get my anger out. I didn't really talk to my friends about it. A lot of my friends didn't even know because I was too young and too sad that if I brought it up, I would cry. 

Chris:

At first, for me, your friends don’t quite understand. I will say that I was able to turn to my dad. He was always very open about his diagnosis and encouraged me to ask him questions. He would also always make jokes. When he got his ileostomy, and people would say they are going to the bathroom, he would tell them he is peeing right now. He would let others know that this does not have to be a heavy subject. But, I would also get my anger out through gymnastics. 

Elizabeth:

I took a woodshop class, and the teacher and I got along really well. So, I was able to just talk to him about everything and anything that was going on. He made me feel safe. I could tell him anything. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. So, I talked to him while I was able to do woodwork, which helped get my anger out. It’s cheaper than therapy, and you get to physically do stuff, which is fun. Another thing I did was write about it because that helped me get it out on paper. It's like it's not as bad as it is. “Here are the facts. This is the only thing you know, right now.” My English teacher also helped me through a lot. She shared a quote with me that has gotten me through, not only my dad's cancer diagnosis, but pretty much everything in life since then. 

“It is what it is. But, it will be what you make it.” -- Pat Summitt

My English teacher also helped me write my college essay. In my essay, I wrote about my dad’s diagnosis; what that was like; and how it was the first time I had ever seen him cry, which was really weird. That is how I knew something was really wrong with my dad. When he was diagnosed, he couldn't even come into the house. My mom came in, and my siblings and I were all holding signs that said, “welcome home.” We hoped everything went well because every time somebody had a test or medical procedure, it did go well, and we didn’t think, “Oh he has cancer.” They came into the garage, and we saw on their faces that it was not good news. 

Ryan:

I was 19 when my father was diagnosed. So, I was able to rely on my friends during that time. I had a couple of really close friends that I was able to talk to about it. My dad just did a good job of making the situation not as heavy as a subject, as you might think it would be. He was a person I could talk to about anything. In a weird way cancer almost opened up our relationship to help us connect and get even closer. I was able to find ways to talk about it and navigate the conversations, which helped me from my perspective to make things easier. 

What does staying involved in Fight CRC in honor of your dads mean to you? How do you find the strength? 

Ryan:

From my perspective, it was just seeing how much my dad was involved with Fight CRC. I always remember talking to him about what he was doing with his time as an ambassador. And screening was a huge topic that he would always say how much he cared about. Seeing how much passion he had, and how much it helped him when he was diagnosed, was the reason I would like to help carry that on. I want to continue to advocate for those who are getting this disease earlier. How do we catch it? We have to screen and continue trying to raise awareness around that. My dad’s ability to make light of the situation and continue to raise educational awareness is why I wanted to continue to do that. I think he did that up until the day that he passed. He always tried to do what he could to help. 

Chris:

I think my dad would have absolutely continued to be a part of Fight CRC if he were still alive. And I think that me being a part of Fight CRC is a way to do it for him. I not only advocate for him, but for everyone else. 

What are your thoughts on Camp Oasis? And what is the value of going to something like that?

Caroline:

I went, and did not want to go because it was only four months after my dad was diagnosed, so it was still a very touchy subject. But the camp wasn't really as much about talking about it and more just forgetting about it and doing fun things to take your mind off of your parent’s diagnosis. And they did have a coping session that was actually really helpful. It was also nice because you got to meet kids who are in the same league. I met one of my really good friends there, who actually went to the same school as me; we just had never met before. She and I still talk. And it was nice to have someone who understood the exact same thing I was going through and to lean on.

Elizabeth:

I wanted to go more than my siblings did. Because I was really excited to talk with people who are in my shoes and are not in the same house. We did so many activities and for one day we were just able to forget about cancer and enjoy the company of other kids who knew the one thing we had in common was that we all had a family member with cancer. But being able to talk about it, learn how to cope with it, and just have fun together to get our minds off of cancer was amazing. 

Joey:

It really provided us with the realization that there are going to be days where you forget about it, that there is still fun in the world and purpose other than knowing your parent has cancer. I would recommend it. 

Survivors have you found any groups that have been helpful? 

Erin:

I am a part of the Colon Club. When I was diagnosed at 18, I found the Colon Club. I always wanted to be a part of it. I applied and applied; this year, I was accepted. This summer doing the photoshoot really really helped me. When I was 18, I didn’t know anyone with colon cancer, and I was so upset about that; I felt like no one understood. I found a group of people, finally, that get it. I can talk to them about it and have great conversations. We are all still connected. So, definitely the Colon Club has helped me. I really love it. 

Bo:

I have a camp that I go to, where kids diagnosed with all different types of cancer attend. I met my best friend there. There are a lot of people there that may not know exactly what I am going through but can relate to what’s going on. 

Did anybody uniquely step in to help you? What did they do that was so powerful in your life? 

Bo:

I think it would be my best friend. I would check in with him, but if I was distant from him he would send me encouraging texts. 

Joey:

I would say both of my parents because they would comfort me and really let me know that it is OK to let my emotions out, crying or feeling anger, really anything that I was feeling. I could feel safe and let it all out with them.

Erin:

I would say my grandma who I call, “Nana.” She really stepped up; she took me to every chemo. It was something that we took on together every other week. Her husband died from cancer years ago, so she was in a really bad place, and shortly after that, I was born. So she calls me her “angel.” There is no one else I would want to go through that with than her. 

Elizabeth:

My parents were really supportive. They are our rocks and just wonderful. They always listen. Even though my dad was the one going through it all, he would still listen. My mom helped us with everything. So, I'm very thankful for them.  

What are some stupid things people have said to us? About cancer or about colorectal cancer? 

Joey:

The first and the only person I have told was in seventh grade. I told him, and he said, “Oh, your dad has butt cancer?” I was 13 when that happened, and I never told any of my friends again. 

Erin:

I went to an event and a woman pulled me aside and told me, “You are going to lose all of your hair, and it’s going to be the worst thing you have ever gone through.” And a lot of people would ask if I was going to lose my hair or go bald. Also when people first found out I had cancer they would say, “Oh, it’s because you are not eating right.” Or “it’s because you are eating this.” Or “you have colon cancer because your diet is really bad.” 

Elizabeth:

People would ask me if my dad was going to go bald, but I would always tell them that my dad has been bald my whole life, so that was not something that I worried about. 

Bo:

I didn’t receive mean comments from people about having colon cancer. But they would just say unnecessary comments like, “That’s exactly why you have cancer.” 

Caroline:

I remember it was like maybe two weeks after my dad was diagnosed, and he had just gotten in his port, and one of my friends came over for a sleepover, and she didn't know. And so she saw the port near his shoulder, and she was like, “Oh, did he get shoulder surgery?” And I just said, ”Yeah,” because I was too sad to say, like, “Oh no, he has cancer,” because it was still so new. It was a whole year she thought he had gotten shoulder surgery.

Ryan:

When people start to make jokes about colonoscopies. I think that's a subject that I think people like to joke about, but I think as we kind of learn more about how important they are, I think it becomes less of a good joke. That is something that has always rubbed me the wrong way. But it is also hard to be mad at them because they don’t understand the seriousness of it until they are affected by it themselves. And that's just one thing I want to do is try to change the stereotypes to go along with it.

Gift ideas for someone who is first diagnosed? Gifts that stood out?

Bo:

My Aunt gave me some Hot Wheels cars, and I used to come over to their house, and I was obsessed with them. I remember a time she bought me over 50 Hot Wheels cars, and every time she would see me, she would give me more Hot Wheels cars. Now, I have hundreds of them in my closet. I laugh when I see them and think about how that was the coolest present I could ever get. 

Erin:

Someone gifted me a journal. When I first got it, I didn’t think I would use it. But it was really good to have a space to write down thoughts, whether it was about cancer or not. It was super helpful. 

Chris:

My dad’s second big surgery, he had his bladder and prostate removed, so my mom and I got him a stuffed bladder and prostate. And those were pretty good, I would say, if they are up for the joke. 

Elizabeth:

An ear. And just having someone to talk to, and someone that isn’t just listening; they actually hear what you are saying. Having someone like that is really helpful. 

Caroline:

Someone gave my dad a blanket that was called, “Cozies 4 Chemo.” My dad was getting chemo during the wintertime, so the blanket kept him warm. 

If you could encourage a teenager who is going through what you have been through, what would you say to them? 

Erin:

I would want them to know that it is OK to let your emotions out. Please feel every emotion. If you cry, you cry. If you're happy, be happy. Don’t hide your feelings. I always wanted people to know that I am OK even when I wasn’t. Allow yourself to feel everything that cancer is. Because I didn’t allow myself to feel that. If I could go back in time, I would really want to feel the emotions. 

Elizabeth:

I am going to go back to my quote. “It is what it is. But, it will be what you make it.” I think that will get anybody through anything in life because no matter what the situation is. It's not that situation that defines you. It's how you move on from it; how you accept it; and how you move on. And not just move on, but thrive in that situation.

Bo:

It’s OK to be upset with what is going on, but cancer does not define you and who you are. It’s the attitude that you take from it, like, “I am going to beat this.” It’s OK to be upset, but don’t let it take over your life. 

Caroline:

I would say to keep looking forward. We have a sign in our kitchen that my mom made, while my dad was getting treatment. It has a quote from the show, New Amsterdam, “It’s a good news kind of day.” It did turn out to be “good news kind of days.” It was always nice to have that to look to because when we weren’t having good news days, we always knew that brighter days were ahead. 

Chris:

Take each day as it comes. Don’t overthink about things that are coming up. Just take it day by day. If you just go day by day, then you are going to get through each one. 

Ryan:

Taking things as they come and trying to make some sort of positive out of it. And I think from my perspective is just:, Take the time that you have with the people around you to make the most of it, and cherish every day because things can change quickly, and it's always best to live each day to its fullest.

Joey:

You gotta find the small things in life that make you happy because there's really a lot of negative things. But a small thing, though normally wouldn’t mean a lot to you, it can mean a lot to you. 

Path to a Cure

Our Path to a Cure report is our plan for the future. This plan is not just for Fight CRC, but for everyone who is willing to champion this cause. Together, with our community of patients, families, and caregivers, we work relentlessly to bring attention to colorectal cancer and all the issues surrounding it.

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