Marie Sajous-Ajax’s mother was a registered nurse and taught her children the importance of health and wellness. They attended every doctor’s appointment, always followed medical advice, and participated in a holistic approach to wellness through diet, exercise, and meditation.
“Cancer was something that we just thought happened to other people,” Marie said. “Until one day in 2017 when my mother went in for a routine gynecological check-up and they found stage IV endometrial cancer.”
Before her mother’s diagnosis, Marie had been experiencing on and off stomach pains that were causing her concern. At first, she thought they might be stress related, as she was completing a graduate program at the time.
However, in late 2016 Marie’s pains began to worsen, so she decided to go to the emergency room and get it checked out. When several scans showed nothing, she was sent to a gastroenterologist for a follow-up consultation. The GI told her that her pain was stomach-related — perhaps irritable bowel syndrome – and left it at that. This pattern continued for some time. Marie continued going to visits, hoping to get answers, but was provided with nothing that alleviated her pain.
Meanwhile, despite completing surgery and chemotherapy, Marie’s mother died within a year of her diagnosis.
“This is what really began to wake me up, as I realized I needed to listen to my body more and advocate for myself,” Marie said. “I was angry that my mother had been taken from us. Her cancer could have easily been caught years before through a simple ultrasound that should have been completed sooner.”
Marie’s Path To Self Advocacy
Marie’s pains continued to come and go, and this time she wasn’t willing to accept that it was just “stomach related.” In 2018, she underwent an endoscopy. Doctors continued to tell her that what she was experiencing was “nothing to worry about” and prescribed her medication that didn’t seem to target the underlying cause. Marie, who was in her thirties, repeatedly asked for a colonoscopy and was told she was “too young” to receive this procedure.
Still, Marie’s stomach pains continued. Feeling dismissed by her doctors, she began taking matters into her own hands. She researched everything she could related to gut and gastro-intestinal health and began self medicating with natural herbs and supplements. Despite her best efforts, nothing seemed to resolve the issue.
By 2021, Marie’s symptoms became so severe that she was unable to get out of bed or use the bathroom for weeks on end. She experienced bleeding and her stomach pains only seemed to worsen.
“It felt like my appendix was going to burst, and I didn’t know what to do,” Marie said.
Her symptoms prompted another emergency room visit. However, the doctors refused to give her a CT scan and, after normal routine blood work, sent her home with nothing more than another referral to a gastroenterologist.
Changing Medical Providers
By this point, Marie knew that something had to change. She didn’t feel that any of her medical providers were truly listening to her so she began looking for a new primary care doctor. Marie wrote everything down – every symptom she experienced, every doctor she had seen, and every medication she had taken since 2016 when it all began. When she met with her new primary care provider, she asked her to look over the list.
“This new doctor actually took her time with me,” Marie said. “She looked over everything and agreed it was concerning. She ordered a complete blood panel and referred me to a new gastroenterologist.”
With a provider finally on her side, Marie began to receive answers. Her new gastroenterologist agreed that it was necessary for Marie to get a colonoscopy. Three weeks later they discovered an apricot-sized tumor in her colon, and Marie was diagnosed with stage I colon cancer. Fortunately, she was able to receive surgery to remove the tumor and has been without evidence of disease ever since.
“I always think about the fact that if I had listened to all of the doctors brushing this off as nothing serious it probably would have killed me,” Marie said. “I wouldn’t have made it to age 45 when I was otherwise eligible to have my colonoscopy.”
Bringing Awareness to Disparities in Marginalized Communities
But that wasn’t the only part of Marie’s story that she wants other people to be aware of. Marie, a Haitian-American woman, cautions that racial disparities may have affected her diagnosis and delayed treatment.
“I believe race plays a role in colorectal cancer and prolonged treatment in two ways,” Marie said. “For one, there is not enough education happening on the community level regarding the larger impact this disease is having on minorities. Additionally, we know that racism plays a role in medical disparities amongst people of color.”
Black Americans have among the highest incidence and mortality rates. Deaths from CRC are 35% higher in the Black community than they are among non-Hispanic whites. That is why the Colorectal Cancer Alliance has made improving health equity an organizational principle with a commitment to breaking down barriers to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
“I want to be an advocate and generate awareness, especially for people of color,” Marie said. “You have to listen to your body. We may not be physicians, but we’ve lived in our body our whole lives. We can sense when things aren’t right and we have to listen to those instincts. The people who will mourn you are your family, not the doctors.”
Lessons From Marie’s Story
Marie is a mother, wife, aunt, sister, and daughter. She uses her story to bring awareness to the challenges present within the medical system and urges others to advocate for their own health as well as health equity at large.
“I always make sure that my loved ones are getting their screenings on time, and I hope you will too,” she said. “I’d never want anyone to have to go through what I went through, and I hope my story will help someone else on their personal path to wellness.”
Marie honors her mother’s life by helping others to understand the risks of CRC and seek necessary medical treatments. Through her bravery and relentless self advocacy, Marie’s story inspires others to take back control of their health by listening to their bodies and rewriting the narrative.
Don't miss another story!
Subscribe to our newsletter.