Courtesy Gini Reed, MD Anderson Cancer Center
When Lauren Marler began having disturbing symptoms at the age of 15, she somehow knew it was cancer. After the Midland, Texas, teenager did some of her own research, she realized that she was right. But that was just the beginning of her horrific cancer odyssey. Marler’s doctors discovered that what she had was truly unlucky—but she’s still here to tell her tale.
In 2005, Marler noticed blood in her stool; she was mortified and too embarrassed to tell anyone. For two years she kept silent until her symptoms worsened. “I looked up my symptoms and knew I had all the signs for colon cancer,” she says. “I freaked out but still couldn’t tell my mom face-to-face, so I wrote her a letter, telling her I knew I had cancer. My mom thought I was overreacting, and even the doctor she took me to said it was constipation.” When her symptoms persisted after a high-fiber diet, doctors performed an endoscopy and colonoscopy and confirmed what Marler had known all along: At 17, she had full-blown colon cancer. Learn the 6 silent signs of colon cancer you might be missing.
“When I woke up, my mom looked like she had just seen a ghost. The doctor who performed the tests was crying. She said she had never seen a case as bad as mine, and that I needed to get to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center immediately,” Marler recalls. There she met with Miguel Rodriguez-Bigas, MD, FACS, FASCRS, who removed Marler’s entire colon and almost all of her rectum—leaving only enough to allow her to retain normal digestive function and to avoid having an ileostomy bag for life.
But just nine months later, the cancer returned. “When my mom told me, I was cleaning my room. I just felt like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I just want to be a normal kid.'” After another surgery, three months of chemotherapy, and radiation, Marler believed that her cancer battles had to be over. Find out the 14 cancer warning signs your doctor should never ignore.
Then, during a routine scan to ensure that she was still in remission five years later, 23-year-old Marler got the call she never thought she’d get again. “I was at work and the doctor called to tell me that the scan showed a spot in my uterus. A biopsy of the polyp revealed it was endometrial cancer, and an aggressive one. We went back to MD Anderson to meet with Pedro T. Ramirez, MD, who recommended a full hysterectomy. “Luckily, that time, the cancer was contained to the polyp, so I didn’t need chemotherapy,” she explains. Read these 21 reasons to feel hopeful about medicine’s progress in fighting cancer.
Puzzled by Marler’s history, Dr. Rodriguez-Bigas recommended that she get genetic testing. The testing revealed the bad news: Marler had an incredibly rare disorder called CMMRD (constitutional mismatch repair deficiency—it had just recently been identified by a researcher in Australia). Dr. Rodriguez-Bigas explained that the disorder predisposes a person to different cancers—the body fails to repair the cell mutations that lead to cancer. Learn about these 37 ways to cut your cancer risk, according to science.
Both of her parents have Lynch syndrome, a mutation in a gene called PMS2 that leaves them highly susceptible to colon, endometrial, and other types of cancer. When Marler inherited two bad copies of the gene, it meant that she was extremely vulnerable to a variety of cancers. There is no treatment for the disorder, only preventive care—primarily regular scans to catch any developing cancers early. Armed with an answer for the grief and suffering she had endured for the past decade of her life, Marler actually felt a sense of relief. “It’s heartbreaking, but at least I have an answer. Less than 100 people in the United States have it, and I’m one of them.”
Three years later, Marler was unable to shake what she thought was a lingering sinus infection. “I just keep coughing—I felt awful. I was nauseated and running a high fever. The ER gave me medication for the nausea and advised me to take Tylenol for the fever.” The next morning, Marler’s mother knew something wasn’t right when Marler refused to go back to the hospital because of the level of pain she felt. Check out these 30 steps you can take to help prevent cancer.
On this trip to the hospital, Marler was admitted and scanned. Doctors found a suspicious spot on a lymph node and Marler was airlifted back to MD Anderson. “I couldn’t believe it was happening again. The biopsy showed that it was lymphoma, one of the hardest types to treat. The doctors told me the treatment was going to be so grueling that I would hate them by the time it was over. They were right.” Marler endured six different types of chemotherapy simultaneously, one of which was delivered through her spinal cord. She was required to be admitted to the hospital every other week for six days. “I was so weak I couldn’t get off of my couch. I lost all of my hair, and I had severe body aches,” she recalls.
Today, at 28, Marler is once again in remission—something she definitely doesn’t take for granted. She credits her family for her ability to endure her repeated battles with a smile. She says, “I laugh a lot. That’s one thing my family does really well—we can find the humor in any situation. I’ve always found a way to laugh. I do worry about what’s next, but I can’t let it consume me. I’ve learned to live with it.” Be inspired by these quotes from 34 other cancer survivors.
Marler has some advice to others who might be young and too embarrassed to seek help for uncomfortable symptoms: “Find a way to get the help you need—you have to tell someone. Even if it’s writing a letter like I did, find someone you’re comfortable with that you can tell. If I had waited longer, I would have died in my 20s. Find a way to get help.” Now read about 50 cancer myths you need to stop believing.