Resilience and Determination: How a Young Dancer Beat Colon Cancer

At 31, Rachel Secrest was shocked to learn that a painful mass in her colon was cancer. But thanks to the care of experts at NewYork-Presbyterian, the contemporary dancer is now cancer free — and set to return to the stage.

Photography by Omar Z. Robles

From a very early age, it was clear Rachel Secrest was destined to be a dancer. She began dance classes at age 3. As she got older, she would go straight to the studio after school, and “then I just stayed there,” she laughs. “I was pretty good at it, and I started dancing more and more.” When she saw a professional company perform as a teenager, she remembers saying to herself, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do,” and from that point on, “I was like, OK, no turning back.”

When Rachel was 18, she moved from Carmel, Indiana to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a professional contemporary dancer and studied dance at Fordham University. As a performer who effortlessly blends power with technique and artistry, she was a member of dance companies that took her around the world, from Colombia to Russia, and across the United States. Rachel was fulfilling her lifelong dream, until one day in June 2023, everything changed.

She was home in New York and had been experiencing cramps for a few days, but when she woke up one morning, her pain was so severe that she couldn’t get out of bed. She was unable to eat or drink, and eventually her boyfriend convinced her to go to urgent care. Urgent care gave her fluids and some basic tests that ruled out pregnancy and her menstrual cycle as sources of the pain — and then told her to go immediately to an emergency room.

Rachel ended up at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, where they ordered a CT scan right away. “Not long after I had it done, I was told they found a mass in my colon,” she says. At first, doctors thought there was a 50/50 chance it could be Crohn’s disease or cancer. “In my mind, I was just like, ‘I must have Crohn’s,’” adds Rachel, who was young and had been healthy all her life. She also had no family history of cancer.

But when doctors took a sample of the mass by doing a colonoscopy, they confirmed that it was colon cancer — a diagnosis that left her “floored and shocked,” she recalls. The tumor was the size of a small melon (four to six inches in diameter) and located in her descending colon — the third of four parts that make up the organ.

Early-Onset Colon Cancer on the Rise

Colorectal cancer, also referred to as colon or rectal cancer, begins in the colon or rectum. It is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Since the mid-1990s, incidence rates in people under 55 have been rising by 1% to 2% per year. It is unclear why, but researchers are working to understand the reasons for the upward trend. Rates have declined among older adults, likely due to more people getting screened (recommended to begin at age 45) and changes to lifestyle-related risk factors.

Cramping, like Rachel was experiencing, is one symptom of colorectal cancer. When a tumor begins to grow, it prevents foods, fluids, and gas from moving through intestines normally, resulting in a blockage and leading to cramps. Other symptoms are rectal bleeding and a change in bowel habits.

“My mind went many places [when I was told I had cancer],” says Rachel, who would have to put her career and passion for contemporary dancing on hold. “I was worried about treatment and how my life was going to change.” In those early days after being diagnosed and having to spend days in bed, she recalls losing her strength and muscles. “I watched myself wither away after years of training and hard work. Mentally, that was difficult,” she says.

A Complicated Surgery

Rachel was transferred to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where she had surgery to remove the cancer — a minimally invasive left-extended colectomy — performed by Dr. Beatrice Dionigi, a colorectal surgeon specializing in colon and rectal cancer.

“As soon as I learned that she was going to be my surgeon, I felt so at ease,” says Rachel. “Dr. Dionigi walked me through what surgery would entail in a way that was direct and honest, which I appreciated, and she answered all my questions.”

Dr. Beatrice Dionigi

There was a lot to explain, in part because Rachel’s surgery would be a delicate one. A left-extended colectomy involves removing the area of the colon with the cancer with a portion of normal colon on either side to obtain clear margins and at least 12 nearby lymph nodes to achieve an oncological resection.

In Rachel’s case, the tumor was located in the first part of her descending colon, at the level of the splenic flexure, which is the left bend in the large intestine under the spleen. “The splenic flexure is one of the most challenging parts of the colon to resect,” says Dr. Dionigi. “We have to be careful when we remove a tumor from that area because the spleen is connected to the colon through a ligament. If we apply too much traction, the spleen can be damaged with potentially profuse bleeding. Thankfully, using a minimally invasive technique called laparoscopy [a type of surgery that uses very small incisions], I could see the area very well and carefully mobilize the colon off the spleen safely.”

Dr. Dionigi navigated the delicate area, and Rachel’s surgery was a success. “We removed the tumor and 15 inches of her left colon (where the tumor was),” says Dr. Dionigi. “About 56 nearby lymph nodes were also resected and sent to pathology to check for cancer cells and to determine her stage, which ended up being stage two with high-risk features.”

Although Rachel did well in surgery, some aspects of recovery were challenging for a dancer, such as holding off strenuous physical training for several weeks in the immediate post operative period. “As a dancer, your core is what you use most of the time,” says Rachel. “You are trained to do all your movement from there, to always be engaged with it. To not be able to use my abdominals during this time was a retraining process. But overall, it was smooth sailing after surgery. I was able to go home from the hospital even a day earlier than anticipated and recovered at around six weeks.”

Dr. Alfred Neugut

After surgery, Dr. Dionigi referred Rachel to Dr. Alfred Neugut, a medical oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who oversaw the next phase of her treatment. “Rachel and I engaged in shared decision-making, and to reduce her risk of the tumor coming back, we agreed on chemotherapy as the next step,” he says.

In August 2023, Rachel began an oral chemotherapy that she will wrap up in March 2024 – less than a year before her diagnosis. From here on out, “we will be monitoring Rachel’s health every 6 months, which will consist of scans and colonoscopies, to make sure that she continues to live a long, and healthy life as a cancer survivor,” says Dr. Neugut.

Ready to Take the Stage

Rachel stayed active and danced as much as she could while undergoing treatment. “My body knew its limits,” she says. “The side effects I had while on chemotherapy were fatigue, which was tough, and hand-foot syndrome, so I got blisters all over my feet. But I went to the gym and did physical therapy exercises to try to get my strength back.”

In January 2024, Rachel set a goal for herself to be back on stage by April. While completing the last rounds of chemotherapy, she has been training and rehearsing for her first performance since her diagnosis.

Rachel’s colon cancer journey has given her a whole new perspective on life and her dancing. She believes the experience “will ground me more during my performance,” she says of her return to stage. “When you are a 20-year-old getting on stage, it feels like life or death when you don’t hit that step or if you fell out of that turn. It feels like it is the worst thing that can happen to you,” she says. “After going through cancer, that stuff almost [doesn’t matter]. It is about being more vulnerable and authentically yourself.”

Rachel remained calm and determined through her cancer journey. The discipline she honed over the years training as a dancer likely helped her stay focused during her treatment, says Dr. Dionigi. “She never complained. Her determination and focus in getting back on stage were inspiring and I was honored to have helped her in one of the most difficult times of her young life. I hope her successful story can bring comfort to young women and men currently battling with colon cancer while empowering other young people to be checked out if they have her symptoms. Remember: a colonoscopy can save lives.”

“I have tried to look at this time as a way to build myself back better,” says Rachel. “I’ve gone through experiences in my life and career where things that I felt like were a setback were actually the best thing for me. Cancer felt like another one of those moments. Now I can start from a square one and build myself back up.”

Beatrice Dionigi, M.D., F.A.C.S., is a double board-certified colon and rectal surgeon with expertise in malignant colorectal diseases including colon and rectal cancer, polyposis syndromes, and re-operative colorectal surgery as well as minimally invasive procedures. Dr. Dionigi is the author of several publications and is a recipient of national and international awards related to research. She is also an assistant professor of surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and founder of the Early Onset Colorectal Cancer initiative study supported by the Columbia Research Cancer Center.

Alfred Neugut, M.D., is a medical oncologist with a particular interest in gastrointestinal tract cancers, especially colorectal and gastric cancers, at NewYork-Prebyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He is also the Myron M. Studner professor of cancer research and professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. As both a practicing medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist, Dr. Neugut’s major interests have been in gastrointestinal tract cancers, notably the epidemiology of colorectal adenomas and cancer, as well as colonoscopy screening. Dr. Neugut also serves as the co-director of NewYork-Presbyterian’s Cancer Prevention Program. 

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