According to the Colon Cancer Coalition, between 1998 and 2007 colorectal cancer cases have dropped steadily in adults over 50, but they have increased by more than 2% each year in younger adults. This is a startling trend, because most young adults don’t think to get screened for colon cancer. Despite no family history, Ed Yakacki was barely 30 years old when he was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer that had spread into his liver and three inches into his colon.
Meredith Jayne (MJ): How was the cancer initially detected? Were there any signs that made you go to the doctor?
Ed Yakacki (EY): I was around 29 when I went to my family doctor because I was having symptoms going to the bathroom. I would be in pain and then it would go away, so I would assume it was something I ate, but then it would come back. The doctor’s office ran a bunch of tests, and they kept telling me I looked fine. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that, I would be a millionaire. It got to the point where I was asking them for a colonoscopy, because all these tests they were doing weren’t really going anywhere.
My pain was getting worse and worse, and one day I called my father up crying because I was in so much pain. I didn’t know what to do, so my dad took me to the emergency room and the ER doctor there could tell by the look on my face that there was something wrong with me.
I had a sigmoidoscopy scheduled for the next day, and the doctor there told me that there were some abnormalities, but he said with my age and health, he suspected it was Crohn’s Disease. I went home, and I was still having discomfort, so I got an ultrasound done. A week later I went back, and when I went in the room the doctor was crying. He said, “It’s worse than we thought. It’s cancer.”
After he said cancer, I didn’t hear a word after that. I just really couldn’t believe it because I was only 30 years old.
MJ: How did you feel when you first received the diagnosis?
EY: I thought my life was over, really. I kept thinking, “I’m only 30 years old, I haven’t even lived my life yet.” I tried to process it, but I didn’t know what to think.
MJ: Tell me a little bit about your treatment process.
EY: I went to the oncologist and they mapped out a treatment plan. In their minds, there was a clear path to how we would handle the cancer. But one thing I’ve learned from all of this is that you need to learn how to handle the psychological part of it, not just the physical part. I’ve been diagnosed with three different types of cancer, and it’s taken up about 10 years of my life; it’s not a job where you clock in, work your eight hours, clock out and go home … this is a 24-hour job, seven days a week. I felt alone, I was scared, I often asked, “Why me?” I didn’t think that I deserved the diagnosis that I got. I struggled with that immensely.
MJ: What did you do to meet and overcome the challenges of your treatment?
EY: The turning point for me was getting involved in one of these colon cancer walks. Before I went to one of these events, I was very isolated, and I was an emotional wreck.
Then I went to this walk through the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. When I got there, I saw that a lot of the teams were walking or running in honor of someone they lost from the disease, and that really struck a chord with me. It completely changed my life, because here I was kicking stones down a road, and there are people out there who have lost their lives to this. I decided to do something to help.
At that point, I got involved everywhere that I could. I did the next walk, Get Your Rear in Gear, Philadelphia, and raised around $4,500 for them. It gave me a purpose that I was missing in my life at that time. Why did I survive this? It cost me badly, but I decided that I should be taking my bad circumstances and trying to educate people.
MJ: What has this experience taught you?
EY: It’s really made me grow up and look at life differently. I wasn’t really in control of my life, and I thought I was.
I learned that. I learned compassion. I learned humility. I’ve learned to try to help others and to pay it forward. I try to be there for other people with a new diagnosis, because when I see somebody suffering I see that look on their face, and I see myself in their shoes. The key to beating this is patience; listening to the people that are in charge of whatever your treatment strategy is; and keeping the faith that tough times don’t last, but tough people do. Today might be a bad day, but there are good times within the day.
MJ: Can you describe how sharing your story with others has affected your journey with cancer?
EY: When I’m talking about my story … it’s like going to confession for me. It’s a cleansing of the soul and a way to make sense of my journey. Helping other people helps me. After Get Your Rear in Gear, I went to Washington, D.C., and spoke there. An online group for colon cancer invited me to speak for the Colon Cancer Alliance, so I went down there and spoke to probably 400 people, and I told them my story; the good, the bad and the ugly. I started getting more involved, and I went and spoke all over the country. That’s what helped me get to the point I’m at.
MJ: What would you tell someone who just got their cancer diagnosis today?
EY: The first thing I would say is that it’s definitely not a death sentence; it is manageable and you just have to think about what you’re fighting for. You have to advocate for yourself.
I would also tell them that creating small goals is so important. This last time, on my birthday, I found out in the morning that my wife was pregnant with our first child. That afternoon, I was told that I had cancer for the third time. An aggressive bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. All I knew was that I wanted to meet my son. My wife would say, “I don’t want you talking like that.” But I told her, “Listen, this isn’t my long-term goal—it’s just a goal.” Small goals are what keep you going.
MJ: What would you want other men and women of screening age, who are hesitant to get a colonoscopy, to know?
EY: I’d tell them that yes, there are small hurdles involved with getting a colonoscopy, but if you want to be with your loved ones, this test is something that could be instrumental in extending your life. Most of the time with colon cancer, by the time you’re having symptoms, it’s a good indicator that it’s an advanced stage of the disease; it’s a silent killer.
I always tell people, “You don’t want to end up like me. You don’t want to end up having these surgeries and treatments. You want to make sure you’re healthy. The prep is the worst part of it. After that, you get put to sleep, you wake up and you don’t even know it happened. It’s important to take it seriously—I went down a rough road and I don’t want to see anybody else go down this road.”
These days, Ed is two years cancer free, and will be marking three years in April 2020. He has a 2½-year-old son, and a 9-month old daughter. He worries about the fact that the grass needs to be cut, and that his kids have a doctor appointment in the afternoon. “I’m just thankful to be on this side of it … it’s weird to be normal again,” he says. “I’m trying to mold my kids into good people and teach them the value of everything that I’ve been through.”
Ed is a three-time cancer survivor. He’s had both hips replaced, three blood clots in the lungs, seven blood transfusions, 23 surgeries, 32 rounds of chemo, 61 radiation treatments, and is one hell of a fighter. “I’m a grinder,” Yakacki says simply. “It’s been a crazy journey, but it’s molded me into who I am today.”