VALRICO, Fla. — At first, the symptoms just seemed like hemorrhoids.
Stephanie Luke was a healthy 38-year-old, so she chalked up the blood in her stools to rectal inflammation. But after a month, at the end of November, she underwent a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with stage II colorectal cancer — a progression of the disease into nearby tissues.
The Valrico woman went into planning mode, asking her doctor what came next. Later, by herself, she would have moments where she asked, “Why me?” She underwent genetic testing that proved what she already knew: Her family had no history of the cancer.
“I was kind of in shock but stuff doesn’t hit me until later, usually,” she said.
Now, Luke urges anyone who notices potential symptoms to get screened right away.
“If you know something’s not right with your body, you have to be your own advocate and make sure you go and get it checked out,” she said.
It’s a message cancer experts always emphasize, but one that carries new urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve seen improvement as coronavirus cases and deaths decline, but they still fear people are reluctant to leave their homes — ignoring routine screenings and even possible symptoms.
This reluctance may delay detection and treatment until the cancer reaches a later, more dangerous stage.
According to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer was the second-leading cause of death nationwide in 2020. Heart disease was No. 1 at 690,000 deaths, followed by cancer at 598,000 deaths and COVID-19 at 345,000 coronavirus deaths.
In 2019, the latest full year that data was available, cancer was the second-highest cause of death in Florida, claiming the lives of 45,562 people.