Patient Stories

Matt's Unexpected Colon Cancer Story

Mar. 25, 2024

“A colonoscopy is not a scary thing.” How a healthy 37-year-old Cincinnati dad turned into a cancer patient, survivor and advocate.

When it comes to your late thirties, Matt Stenger was living the good life.

 “Life was going as I expected it would,” the Hamilton County man said. “I was married, happily married with two kids and a job I enjoy.”

Stenger shared how he enjoyed keeping an active lifestyle and healthy diet.

But everything changed when he said he started having “stomach discomfort.” Stenger couldn’t figure out what was going on. Constipation? Diet changes? Allergies?

Stenger was 37 years old.

His general practitioner recommended a colonoscopy. Stenger said he didn’t have any known family history but decided in September 2021 to have the procedure done anyway.

“They found a large tumor in my sigmoid colon, so not very far. The GI doc said she didn't have to go far, and she knew exactly what it likely was,” Stenger said.

The discovered tumor was diagnosed as stage three colon cancer.

“It was really hard,” Stenger said, reflecting on his diagnosis news. “Being so unexpected and having lived my life, being healthy and being active and, and all those things, it just is something that I never thought possible. It was really hard to look at my kids,” Stenger said. “It was hard to tell my sisters,” he said, “Not be able to look at them in the face and talk to them. Talk to my wife,” Stenger said as his voice trailed off.

Stenger sought immediate cancer treatment at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center. He teamed up with Chief of Colon and Rectal Surgery Dr. Ian Paquette, a leader in colon and rectal surgery. Here, Matt received a tailored treatment plan combining surgery, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.

“I remember the day well,” Paquette reflected on the first time he met Stenger. “Because it's memorable for me when I meet somebody so young. I think we're seeing more and more people that are just very young with this problem.”

“He gave me some reassurance,” Stenger said of Paquette. “And [at] our first appointment, he was real with me and said, ‘It's big and it's in a bad place. He goes, but we can fix it.’And I held on to that the entire time.

Matt's treatment journey started with genetic testing. This helped determine if a more personalized approach to his cancer care would be appropriate based on the results.

“We did some, you know, genetic testing to find out what was the best case and what, what treatment plan needed to be, and quickly determined that I was a good candidate for a kind of an immunotherapy type treatment versus some traditional stuff,” Stenger said. Stenger said. “Also got set up with my oncologist, Dr. Tahir Latif, and the wonderful team here at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center and was on my way and on treatment plan very quickly. I think I met with Dr. Latif on a Monday and had a port put in on a Friday, and had chemo on Monday, the following Monday. So we got right to treatment.”

Stenger had a successful tumor removal surgery at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center.

“I don't have cancer. Cancer survivor,” Stenger said. “To say that it feels good. I feel like it's hard to believe it. But I am.”

“I think that's why we come to work every day,” Paquette said, reflecting on being reunited with Stenger one year after his tumor removal surgery. “The reward is in the end result. If we can get somebody from really the most difficult situation of their life and get them the result that they need, get them back to their life in their family, in their career. It's such a rewarding thing to sort of come back and see the end result is really rewarding.”

With younger patients being diagnosed with colon cancer, UC Health Colorectal Surgeon Dr. Carla Justiniano stressed the wide range of symptoms that can and cannot be present before a diagnosis. She stressed getting a proper colonoscopy is the best way to rule out any concern of cancer.

“I think the most important part is that the most common symptom is none,” Justiniano said. “Patients who get their screening colonoscopy often come in and they say, ‘Doc, I feel fine. I'm not having any bleeding, any abdominal pain. I feel fine. This is a total surprise.’ And that's actually a good thing because we can often do surgery, resect your cancer, cure them of it, and they can move on with life without not much more,” she said.

“Now, a lot of our younger patients are presenting with more advanced disease, and that can be they might have symptoms at that standpoint,” Justiniano continued. “They might have difficulty with bowel movements; they might have abdominal pain; they might have bleeding per rectum; they might be bloating, losing weight, and so on. And so, we can have a lot of symptoms. But often, that means we have advanced disease. So even better, when possible, would be to catch people with their screening colonoscopy before they have advanced disease.”

“First off, a colonoscopy is not a scary thing. It's not a hard thing,” Stenger said to those who may be wary of getting a colonoscopy. “It probably would have been the difference of being alive today or not if I would have waited.”

Colonoscopies are recommended for people starting at age 45.

“The good thing about a colonoscopy,” Justiniano said. “If you are totally polyp-free, you get to skip another one for ten years. If we do find polyps, then the interval might be at five or three years, depending on what type of polyp and how many.”

Justiniano offered this piece of the council to those concerned about the prep for a colonoscopy.

“I think I usually joke with them that people pay for bowel cleanses for health and fitness purposes,” Justiniano said. “So you're getting a medical bowel cleanse. It doesn't have to be gross. Some bowel preps are just cleanses with Dulcolax and MiraLAX. And with MiraLAX, you just mix in Gatorade or Powerade or any such energy drink so it really doesn't have to taste that bad. You'll get cleaned out. But most people are usually very happy they did it and they are usually afterwards realize, that wasn't nearly as bad as I thought.”

Justiniano stressed the importance of taking into consideration family history when scheduling screenings.

“If you have a family history and you don't have a specific genetic syndrome, we're going to say 45 or ten years younger than that person,” Justiniano said. “So, for example, if you have a parent that had colorectal cancer when they were 46 and they don't have a specific syndrome that makes you qualify younger, you need one when you're 36.”

The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center has recently introduced a specialized Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Program, prompted by concerning trends emphasized by Dr. Carla Justiniano. "Young-onset colorectal cancer rose from 11% of all colorectal cancers in 1995 to 20% by 2019. So, it has nearly doubled in the last two decades," Dr. Justiniano highlights. This significant increase shines a light on the critical need for dedicated care for younger patients, who are facing rising risks.

With this growing trend in mind, the program aims to offer holistic care and tailored support to younger patients. “I think it's really important to have the right resources for young people and we're really excited here at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center to to be enrolling patients now in a Young Colorectal Cancer Program,” Paquette said. “So we've realized over the years that these patients just have different needs than some of the older patients. So we have a comprehensive program here that has all of the obvious specialists, like surgeons and oncologists. But more importantly, we have things like integrative medicine and genetics, things for fertility care, lots of concerns that go along with being a young patient with a colorectal cancer. I think we can handle that very well here.”

Since being diagnosed, Stenger and his wife have welcomed a third daughter into their family. The family of five enjoys spending time together and making memories. Stenger says he owes a great deal of gratitude to the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center.

“It's absolutely true that the treatment plan that they had and the surgery that I went through with Dr. Paquette saved my life,” Stenger said.

Medical contributions by:

Practices: Colon & Rectal Surgery , Gastrointestinal Cancer