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From cancer patient to patient parent

Despite a devastating diagnosis, Natalie Burgess fulfilled her dreams of reaching the altar—and the delivery room

July 21, 2015
Colon cancer patient Natalie Burgess
Now cancer-free, Natalie Burgess enjoys an afternoon by the pool with her husband Brian, daughter Isabella, and son Kevin.

In July 2010, just weeks away from her long-awaited wedding, Natalie Burgess, then 34, learned the cause of her painful constipation: stage III colon cancer. Fortunately, Burgess’ doctor referred her to UCI Health colorectal surgeon Dr. Michael Stamos, who is among the nation’s leading colon cancer experts.

Burgess, a Long Beach City College English professor, was stunned: Colon cancer is rare in people under 50. But new studies show that’s changing. More people in their 40s, 30s and even 20s are being diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s not clear why. “Environmental factors or diet could be at play, but more research is needed,” explains Stamos.

Burgess wasn’t about to delay her August wedding. But a bigger fear emerged when the Huntington Beach resident learned that her ovaries might have to be removed if the cancer had spread. The prospect was devastating for her and then-fiancé, Brian, who both wanted a family.

Stamos successfully performed the surgery. To Burgess’ relief, her ovaries were safe, but the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, so chemotherapy would be required. That’s when Burgess received a call from Dr. Leonard Sender, hematology-oncology specialist and expert on adolescent and young adult cancers. Because chemotherapy can affect fertility, Sender recommended harvesting her eggs and freezing the embryos, just in case.

Burgess had her dream wedding on schedule, but postponed the honeymoon to complete the egg retrieval process and begin chemotherapy. Today, she’s cancer-free; she and Brian are the proud parents of 2-year-old Isabella and 4-month-old Kevin—both conceived the old-fashioned way, it turns out.

“I savor every moment now,” she says. “I had the dream team taking care of me and I’m so grateful.”

UCI Health has one of the only programs in the country devoted to young adults with cancer. A multidisciplinary team provides the specialized care and consideration these patients need, including psychosocial support.

“Young adults have unique needs,” says Sender. “They’re completing their education, launching a career, starting a family. We want to provide the best medical treatment, but also think about how treatment will affect their lives.”

Most importantly, young adults shouldn’t ignore symptoms like rectal bleeding, abdominal pain or chronic constipation, just because they haven’t reached the recommended screening age of 50. “Cancer can occur at any age,” says Stamos. “If your symptoms are ongoing, take them seriously—and see a doctor who will do the same.”

For more information about colon cancer, visit ucirvinehealth.org/colorectal.

— UCI Health Marketing & Communications
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UCI Health Summer 2015