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How a fainting scare led to colorectal cancer for one 42-year-old and why AdventHealth physicians say catching it early is key

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Dr. Norbert Garcia-Henriquez analyzes a patients scan with a team member at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute.
Dr. Garcia-Henriquez, a colorectal surgeon at AdventHealth Cancer Institute, analyzes a patient colorectal scan with a team member.

Erin Susino’s first day of work last March as a student nurse tech is a day that may have saved her life.

“It was 3 am and I was training on the night shift in a patient’s room giving them a bath and changing wound dressings and I felt weak, dizzy and nauseous,” said Susino. “It got worse, to the point that I couldn’t hear. I turned to go outside, and I never made it to the door.”

Erin Susino prepares for surgery to remove her cancer on Feb. 2, 2024.
Erin Susino prepares for surgery to remove her cancer on Feb. 2, 2024. Dr. Garcia-Henriquez got all the margins and she is now cancer free.

The 42-year-old fainted and ended up in the ER where they ran her bloodwork and found that she had anemia. Over the next six months, she had blood transfusions and iron therapy to treat her low iron levels. In January, she was referred to Dr. Hernan Lopez Morra, an AdventHealth gastroenterologist, who performed a colonoscopy and discovered the tumor.

“He (Dr. Morra) said, you have a mass and it’s bleeding. That’s when it hit me – I had cancer,” said Susino.

“Within a few seconds of the colonoscopy my team and I discovered a golf ball-sized tumor,” said Dr. Morra. “I truly believe our multidisciplinary teamwork is the key to success. Because we immediately meet with the patient and quickly map out a customized plan of action, like we did with Erin, it increases the chance of successful patient outcomes.”

Unfortunately, Susino’s story is becoming more common. A recent American Cancer Society (ACS) study found that more young people are getting colon cancer earlier than ever before. In fact, it’s now the deadliest form of cancer among men under 50 and the second-leading cause of cancer death for women in the same age group. 

In fact, the American Cancer Society lowered the screening age from 50 to 45 years old just last year due to the alarming number of younger patients being diagnosed.

Dr. Garcia headshot
Dr. Garcia-Henriquez is a colorectal cancer surgeon at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute and Susino's surgeon.

“We're living in an era where what we consume is resulting in these problems,” said Dr. Nobert Garcia-Henriquez, a colorectal cancer surgeon at AdventHealth and Susino’s surgeon. “Especially in the younger generation, there is an enormous amount of processed foods being consumed.”

Dr. Garcia-Henriquez says this trend of younger patients being diagnosed with colorectal cancer is happening here in the Central Florida community, and Dr. Morra agrees. He suspects a variety of things, in addition to processed foods, contributing to colon cancer in younger patients.

“An inactive lifestyle, poor diet, obesity, alcohol and smoking, particularly vaping, which seems to be popular in the younger generation, all raise your risk of getting colon cancer,” said Dr. Garcia-Henriquez. “The good news is that we are in control of what we eat, and we can change our habits – therefore, decreasing our cancer risk.”

Dr. Garcia-Henriquez suggests incorporating colon healthy foods into your diet, such as:

  • Leafy green vegetables, grains and nuts (high in fiber)
  • Salmon and tuna (which has high omega 3 oils)
  • Blueberries (high in antioxidants)

“If you have blood in your stool, abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits, or explained weight loss or feeling overly tired, you should get checked out,” said Dr. Garcia-Henriquez.

This past month, Erin went in for a minimally invasive colectomy, which Dr. Garcia-Henriquez performed successfully, and she went home in 48 hours.

“Luckily, for Erin, the results came back, it was stage 2 and we got all the cancer,“ said Dr. Garcia-Henriquez. “She won’t need chemotherapy because we caught it early enough and will just require surveillance.

Dr. Lopez Morra headshot
Dr. Hernan Lopez Morra is a Gastroenterologist at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute and discovered Susino's tumor during her colonoscopy.

Susino is grateful for her early diagnosis and carries her cancer experience into her budding nursing career and believes this will make her a better nurse.

“I can now be an empathetic nurse and relate to what my patients are going through,” said Susino. “By sharing my colorectal cancer story and answering questions, I can comfort them and create a connection of trust. I believe that makes what I’m going through – worth it.”

Susino plans to graduate in December; she urges everyone to be proactive about their symptoms and see a doctor - don’t self-diagnose.

Dr. Garcia-Henriquez agrees, adding, “I can’t stress this point enough – if something is unusual, get screened immediately.” Dr. Morra adds, “It’s better to have us catch it early before you have to put your body through chemotherapy and/or radiation.”

For more information on the AdventHealth Cancer Institute or to find a doctor and get screened, click here.

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