Parasites. That was a doctor’s first diagnosis of Tracy Gaither’s digestive ailments. But she knew something wasn’t right.
“I just kept pushing him and pushing him until he said you need a colonoscopy,” she says. “People have to advocate for themselves.”
In June 2012, Tracy learned she had rectal cancer. She was 42 years old, and—like many who are diagnosed with young-onset colorectal cancer—was at first led astray. An Alliance study showed 82% of young-onset cases are initially misdiagnosed.
Tracy grew up around cancer. Her grandparents had 14 children, and all but two of them were diagnosed with cancer. Her mother died from complications with breast, stomach, and ovarian cancer. Her father is a two-time colon cancer survivor, and her sister had breast cancer.
“I knew cancer from the time I was young,” she says. “I eventually became numb to it, and I associated cancer with death.”
She says she didn’t fully understand the impact cancer had on people. When her mother would say she couldn’t do something because of cancer, she thought it was an exaggeration—until she experienced it herself.
“Now I understand,” she says. “It’s really hard, even though I dealt with it for so long.”
In the years since her diagnosis, Tracy has become a fierce advocate for colorectal cancer awareness, through the Alliance, her church, other organizations, and online.
“It’s funny, people say if they can save one life, they’ve done their job,” she says. “And I feel like I need to save more lives.”
Tracy’s cancer journey led her to a church with thousands of congregants and a cancer awareness ministry.
“As I was going through my journey, one of the things I prayed for was that God would lead me to a church where I could share my story,” she says. She found Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
One of the group’s goals was to participate in a cancer-awareness walk. She led the church to the DC ScopeItOut 5K, the largest colorectal cancer awareness race in the country, attracting nearly 3,000 participants. This year’s race is March 18.
Through her church, Tracy has participated in ScopeItOut every year since 2015.
She also has participated in a phone-in session at WJLA and a fashion show during the Elie Tahari Shopping Day in 2016.
“That made me feel really good—especially that someone recognized colon cancer survivors,” Tracy says. She says a lot of focus is placed on other cancers, like breast cancer, and more awareness of colorectal cancer is needed.
And she shares information about colorectal cancer online, too.
“On Facebook, I keep posting facts,” she says. “I want people to be aware. I had cancer at 42, and that’s not a normal age. I want people to know not to wait to be tested, especially if you’re of African American descent.”
African Americans are encouraged to get screened for colorectal cancer at 45 years old, or earlier if they have a family history of colorectal cancer. African Americans have a 20% higher incidence rate of colorectal cancer than white people.
“My experience was horrible, and I don’t want anyone to go through what I go through, especially because it’s preventable,” Tracy says.
Tracy’s cancer journey has also heightened awareness about what happens in her own life–especially when it concerns food. Tracy has had extensive training in nutrition and insists that food is medicine.
“I feel really good when I’m eating healthy and eating food that nourishes my body,” she says. “I really feel like now I’m in control of whether or not I’m going to get any type of disease or infection.”
But, like most people, she slips occasionally. She says she notices the impact.
“I want to feel good, and as long as I’m feeling good, I’m not worried about cancer again,” she says.
In March, we observe National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Join us as we build our nation of passionate allies, fiercely determined to end this disease within our lifetime.