I never knew my mom had cancer: Caitlin’s story

By Caitlin Kubler (she/her), Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Prevent Cancer Foundation

Caitlin with her mom, Virginia. Caitlin learned, years after the fact, that Virginia battled colorectal cancer while Caitlin was still in middle school. Now she's sharing her family story.

Caitlin with her mom, Virginia.

I’ve always been searching for knowledge. From a young age, I was curious about space, animals, art, science—and especially the medical field. But I did not become fascinated with learning about cancer until I discovered—years after the fact—that my mother had stage 3 colorectal cancer while I was in middle school.

I pursued my passion in the medical field and became an EMT out of high school, volunteering with the local fire department and getting my degree in health sciences management at George Mason University, not knowing my world was about to completely change. My sisters and I were home from college and sitting around the dinner table enjoying a delicious meal my mom had spent all day preparing, when out it came, like she just asked one of us to pass the mashed potatoes. “Back when I had cancer…” We all looked at each other in total shock.

“I’m sorry, what?” I interrupted her. “Wait, you had cancer?! When?” I recall each of us asking my mother a series of prodding questions and she remained calm through each response. It appeared this was the first time any of us, apart from my father, knew my mom had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer and later successfully treated.

She would later share with us that her gynecologist was the one who recommended a stool-based colorectal cancer screening test. She was not yet 50, the recommended screening age at the time (now it’s 45 for those at average risk) but her doctor thought something did not seem right and insisted she try one of the stool-based tests and see a gastroenterologist. Her test came back positive and per guideline recommendations, they did a follow-up colonoscopy and other diagnostics. Doctors confirmed that cancer had perforated the wall of her colon and had spread to her lymph nodes.

My mother ended up having the entire right side of her colon removed, along with her appendix and 13 lymph nodes. She spent 11 months receiving chemotherapy and other treatment, all while working full-time. Any signs or symptoms from her cancer disappeared after five years and today she is 74 years old and happily enjoying her retirement.

It’s painful to think back on the fact my mother went through her cancer journey mostly alone and decided to omit such a significant life event from my sisters and me. But I take with me today the fact that she is miraculously here to tell her story and teach us that knowledge is power—actually, knowledge is empowerment. As a result of my mom sharing her diagnosis with us, my sisters and I are empowered to take charge of our health and have each started routine colorectal cancer screenings (earlier than most due to our elevated risk from family history). I’m happy to say for us it’s so far, so good.

I now spend my professional career advocating for policies that support cancer prevention and early detection. I know that Early Detection = Better Outcomes, and I work to provide education so we all can be our own best advocates for our health.

It can be hard to talk about these things—even with the ones you love—but knowing your family history and checking your health is worth it. While most people who get cancer do not have a family history of the disease (which is one reason routine screening for everyone is so important), a personal or family history of cancer or certain other diseases may increase your risk. As you gather with your family this holiday season, don’t be afraid to have these conversations and leave the table empowered to take care of your health.

READ MORE | You never forget your first time: getting a coloscopy


Thanksgiving is National Family Health History Day. Download your family history chart to ensure you and your health care provider have the valuable information you need to help determine which cancer screenings you need, when to begin screening and how often you should be screened.