Colorectal Surgery Patient Stories

Jaclyn Zajac's Story

After Receiving an Unexpected Colorectal Cancer Diagnosis, Young Patient Continues to Take Back Her Life

At the beginning of 2019, Jaclyn Zajac was living the normal life of a 26-year-old post-grad. Thanks to her background in music business, the New Hampshire native had professional opportunities that took her to exciting music hubs all over the country. From Tennessee to Los Angeles, to Texas, every day Jaclyn was getting one step closer to her dream of becoming a concert photographer.

But life had other plans for her that would test her strength and put her dreams on hold. In the summer of 2019 Jaclyn fainted at a local restaurant in her hometown. Even though she was alarmed, she didn’t think much of it. Instead, she saw it as a sign to start a healthier lifestyle and to start seeing a primary care physician for preventative healthcare.

By February 2022, after years of chronic fatigue and recent dizziness and bloody stools, Jaclyn started to feel concerned, but never imagined that something more serious was afoot. As a young person, any type of cancer diagnosis was the furthest thing from her mind. But upon hearing about her new symptoms, her primary care physician determined that what Jaclyn had wasn’t just a common case of anemia and ordered an emergency colonoscopy.

The results indicated that Jaclyn had a mass in her colon and was instructed to make an appointment with an oncologist as soon as possible. “At the time I didn’t know what that meant but I looked it up online and I thought ‘this isn’t good,’” Jaclyn said. That day she immediately left work and went home to cry.

Jaclyn Zajac receiving treatment at Brigham Cancer CenterAt only 28 years old, Jaclyn was diagnosed with Stage Three colorectal cancer. Even though cancer runs on the paternal side of her family, such diagnosis on a young member of their family was unexpected.

Because of their experience with cancer, her relatives recommended Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, and soon she was starting treatment with Ronald Bleday, MD, who specializes in colorectal surgery. There, they discovered that Jaclyn didn’t have one, but dozens of polypoid masses in her colon. Promptly, her medical care team created an individualized treatment plan that would begin with chemotherapy.

In June of that same year, Jaclyn underwent surgery. “All of the colon and rectum was removed except the last 2.5 centimeters. We preserved that and then created a new rectum out of the small intestine called a J Pouch,” confirmed Dr. Bleday.

Thankfully, the success of the surgery rendered the second round of chemotherapy unnecessary. After only a few months, every step of her treatment had allowed the medical team to downgrade her type of cancer from Stage Three to Stage One. Currently, Jaclyn is cancer free and is living life to its fullest.

The Perfect Storm

There’s a growing trend across the country of young-onset colorectal cancer. This is when people younger than 50 years old are diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer. The impact of this worrying trend has caused a change in the screening guidelines to start earlier, at the age of 45, rather than 50 for individuals of average risk.

In the United States, 11 percent of colon cancer diagnoses, and 18 percent of rectal cancer diagnoses, occur in individuals under the age of 50. By the year 2030, the rate of colon cancer diagnoses is expected to double, and rectal cancer incidence is expected to quadruple in this age group.

Apart from that, genetics put Jaclyn in the high-risk category. From her maternal side she had inherited Lynch syndrome, a relatively common condition that increases one’s likelihood of developing several types of cancers including colon, rectal, uterine, ovarian, urinary tract, prostate and other malignancies. Roughly one in every 300 people has Lynch syndrome, yet most of them are unaware of the risk. For instance, someone carrying the mutation has a 22 to 74 percent higher chance of developing colorectal cancer, compared to a 4 to 5 percent risk in someone who does not carry a mutation.

On top of that, another factor that contributed to Jaclyn’s cancer diagnosis at a young age was a condition called Mosaic FAP (Familial Adenomatous Polyposis), which is a rare inherited condition that causes hundreds of polyps to form in the colon and rectum. If left untreated, they have a high probability of becoming cancerous. According to Matthew Yurgelun, MD, Director of the Lynch Syndrome Center, “the mosaic FAP was almost certainly the more potent driver of her developing cancer, rather than the Lynch syndrome piece.”

It Takes a Village

Jaclyn is tremendously thankful for the care she received at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center. “All the nurses and physicians have been so kind,” said Jaclyn. “The nurses were always genuinely caring and would help me go on short walks, even when I had to go multiple times a day. And they never judged me even when I had embarrassing moments. It felt like my family taking care of me, not strangers. If I must go through it again, I will definitely go back to Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center,” she said of her experience.

Today Jaclyn says that she feels better than she has felt in many years. It turns out that the exhaustion and stomach distress that she never thought much of were warning signs of the cancer. Gradually, yet undauntedly, Jaclyn continues to prioritize her health, including taking short walks, following her special diet, and attending her follow-up visits with Dr. Bleday every three months.

Jaclyn Zajac and her family attending a New England Patriots gameJaclyn Zajac and her family attending a New England Patriots game at Gillette Stadium.

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