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Against all odds

At 33 years old, Stefan Campagna’s life was busy. Delightfully busy. He and his wife led successful law practices in Sarasota. Their 2-year-old son kept the household in constant motion, and they were expecting their second child in just a few months. So, when Stefan felt more tired than usual and had occasional stomach pain, he brushed it off.

After weeks of continued discomfort, his wife urged him to see Dr. Brent Murchie, a gastroenterologist at Florida Digestive Health Specialists.

“Thank god for that,” said Stefan.

On December 5, 2019, Dr. Murchie performed a colonoscopy on Stefan and found a large tumor that almost entirely blocked his colon. Stefan was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer, the most advanced stage with a survival rate of about 15 percent.

“That day, everything changed,” Stefan said. “I was fighting for my life.”

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S. While overall rates of colorectal cancer are slowly dropping, occurrence in people under the age of 50 is increasing. Researchers are still unsure of what is causing this alarming trend. But they do know that certain factors raise the risk of colorectal cancer, including obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and smoking.

“A colon mass is never something that I want to find,” said Dr. Murchie. “But to discover one in someone so young, with a child on the way, made a profound impact on me. I’m not that much older than him; that very well could have been me on the table.”

Stefan didn’t have a family history of colorectal cancer. He was an athlete growing up and continued to prioritize health and fitness as an adult. The diagnosis shocked him.

“My wife and I had just started our family, our life,” said Stefan. “It was the scariest thing in the world.”

Oncologists told him that if he hadn’t received a colonoscopy when he did, he would have been dead within three months. Now, their goal was for him to live to meet his daughter.

Stefan underwent a colon resection and launched into a grueling eight months of chemotherapy. Often, the harsh treatments confined him to a downstairs couch.

“I remember looking up at the stairs and just thinking ‘nope, can’t do that,’” said Stefan.

Halfway through his treatments, the COVID-19 virus upended the world. Highly immunocompromised, Stefan took extra precautions to protect himself and his family. Then, in May 2020, there was a light in the middle of Stefan’s hazy, chemo-filled days. His daughter was born at the same hospital where, just months before, surgeons removed part of Stefan’s cancer-ridden colon.

“My wife gave birth when I was undergoing chemo. I couldn’t be there for her because I couldn’t risk going into a hospital during COVID,” said Stefan. “I stood in the parking lot with a sign.”

In June 2020, Stefan underwent hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) surgery – a treatment that involves opening the abdominal cavity and delivering chemotherapy drugs directly on any remaining cancer cells. It is one of the most invasive and dangerous procedures currently performed in the U.S. Two months later, Stefan was declared cancer-free.

“I’m back to being able to be a husband and father,” he said. “I get to hold my daughter and give her a bottle. I can talk to my son and hear all about what he’s thinking. It’s so cool. I’m thankful for every day.”

Stefan is also educating everyone around him about colorectal cancer symptoms (which can include blood in or on stool; stomach pain, aches or cramps; unexplained weight loss; change in bowel habits; fatigue and weakness). His message?

“Don’t wait – get it checked out now before it becomes something that takes your life away.”