Diana Zepeda lived a hectic life with a high-powered job. So when she began to fall ill, she initially thought that stress was the cause. But as her symptoms worsened, Zepeda could no longer hide from the possibility that something might be seriously wrong. And when her doctor ran tests, it was revealed that the cause of her symptoms was far more serious.
Zepeda had a seemingly unremarkable existence. At 33, she was married and living in Washington, D.C. She worked in finance for a hotel management company that operates some of the world’s biggest and best-known chains. Life for Zepeda, then, was hectic and stressful.
Working long hours in a demanding job, Zepeda would often grab something to eat on the go. Evening meals were largely dictated by whichever fast food joint was still open by the time that she clocked off. And Zepeda believed that the consequences of her diet had started to take a toll on her body.
Towards the end of 2016 Zepeda’s sick days started racking up. She would suffer from extreme tummy pains but just put them down to her poor diet. “I pretty much ate from a food truck for lunch every day,” she told the Washingtonian in March 2018. “So having a full day of stomach cramps was expected.”
But a few months on, Zepeda’s symptoms had grown more severe. Having just celebrated her 33rd birthday, though, she now just put it down to age. Her friends told her that cutting out certain foods from their meals had made them feel brighter. So she gave it a try, and for the next month eliminated sugar, dairy and grains from her diet.
None of this proved effective, however. And when blood began to appear in her stools in February 2017, Zepeda grew more concerned. Having looked up her symptoms on the internet, Zepeda knew that she had to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist – that is, a doctor who deals with digestive tract conditions.
Tests subsequently revealed that Zepeda was suffering from E.coli. “First, I was relieved that whatever it was could be cured with five days of antibiotics,” she told People magazine in March 2018. “I thought it was over… happily ever after. But that wasn’t the case unfortunately.” The treatment seemed to have no effect, in fact.
When Zepeda’s symptoms didn’t improve – on the contrary, they grew worse – her doctor booked her in for a colonoscopy to check for cancer. For anyone whose family doesn’t have a history of colon cancer, the recommended age for a routine check-up is 50.
“I was scared, I was embarrassed, I was dreading it,” Zepeda told the Daily Mail in March 2018. “I didn’t know what to expect, because that’s not on my radar at this age, so it sounded a bit overboard.” Nonetheless, she went along with her doctor’s instructions and prepared for the procedure.
Zepeda subsequently attempted to consume the required liquid – some 64 ounces of it – that would flush everything out of her system. Her body, however, had other ideas. “I had a really strong reaction where I had extreme abdominal pain, a lot of vomiting,” she told the Daily Mail. “And the laxative didn’t have any effect.”
Zepeda’s reaction was so severe, in fact, that her husband rushed her to ER. Although doctors were aware that she was set to have a colonoscopy, they didn’t want to take any risks. They apparently feared that the radiation she would be exposed to during a CT scan might affect her fertility. She was only 33, after all, and had more chance of starting a family than having cancer.
Instead, Zepeda was provided with fluids and kept under observation. Eventually, though, she was sent home under instructions to return the next day for a partial colonoscopy – also known as a sigmoidoscopy – as her body wasn’t properly prepped for the full procedure.
After Zepeda returned the following day for her sigmoidoscopy, her gastroenterologist performed the examination. Upon doing so, the cause of all the young woman’s problems soon became clear. It was a tumor that was approximately golf ball-sized. The doctor consequently informed the 33-year-old that she had stage four colon cancer.
That day was June 20, 2017. “The first thing I did was Google ‘average age for females to be diagnosed with colon cancer,’ and it said 72,” Zepeda told the Washingtonian. “You always read in magazines, ‘I never thought it’d happen to me.’ And now I’m that person in the magazine saying, ‘I never thought it’d happen to me.’”
Colon cancer is among the top three most common forms of cancer diagnosed in the U.S. Although it’s more usually thought of as something that occurs in older generations, cases among adults aged under 50 have increased by around half over the past two-and-a-half decades.
Zepeda’s treatment program was tough. A month after the diagnosis she underwent a brief stint of radiation therapy to reduce the tumor. Then came an operation to remove areas affected by the cancer, including 1.5 feet of her colon, as well as multiple lymph nodes, her appendix and gall bladder and around three-quarters of her liver.
Next,she endured half-a-year of chemotherapy, a process that Zepeda told People rendered her “completely depleted.” She added, “I didn’t have the strength to walk for almost an entire month. I was bedridden. The hardest part was definitely chemo… After the very first treatment, I was ready to quit.”
Nonetheless, she persisted, and on March 29, 2018, Zepeda attended her final chemo session. She was accompanied by her husband, and both of them dressed in their best black-tie outfits. However, although chemo is complete, it will be several years until Zepeda can be officially declared to be in remission.
With the worst of her treatment behind her, Zepeda now has a whole new set of fears to face – namely returning to the real world. “I’m very scared to leave this bubble of care,” she told the Washingtonian. Zepeda is also anxious about returning to work, admitting that she may find small talk difficult.
“If I’d gone to the doctor six months earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten to stage four, and my story would be different,” Zepeda admitted to the Daily Mail. “But there’s really nothing I can do now besides advocate. There’s really no substitution for medical advice, and I hope that everyone takes their symptoms seriously and seeks diagnosis and treatment.”