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By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, email@example.com
She’s 22. She was 21 when she was diagnosed with a disease that she could not even wrap her brain around. Kierstyn Roberts is an active college student, she is a daughter, a sister, a friend, and she is also fighting colon cancer.
In fact, she was a residence hall assistant at IU Bloomington, majoring in math. She was spending time with friends in Chi Alpha Ministry – including a trip to Israel. She was taking part in an elite group of minority scholars. She was hiking at Turkey Run State Park. She was making the most of every part of her life.
Then, it happened. She started feeling an unusual pressure in her right rib cage. A trip to urgent care resulted in few answers. She was told she was most likely suffering a gall bladder attack brought on by unhealthy college food choices.
“We were eating a lot of carbs and fried foods so when the doctor prescribed an anti-inflammatory, I thought I would probably be OK and I’d pay more attention to my diet,” said Roberts. But two weeks later, the pain intensified. “It was unbearable. I couldn’t laugh, sit, or talk,” said Roberts. Then, she started getting chest pains and thought maybe it was due to lack of sleep from the stress over school and her health.
It was Sept. 13, 2020 and the choice Roberts made that day, resulted in answers. She didn’t ignore the symptoms. She went to urgent care and again left with no answers. But she knew her body so her friend drove her to IU Health Bloomington’s emergency department. Blood and urine tests were ordered along with chest scans. Hours passed and she knew something was up when she wasn’t allowed to eat. A CT scan was ordered and the physician told Roberts multiple tumors were detected on her liver and colon. She was hospitalized and three days later, a colonoscopy confirmed Roberts has Stage 4 colon cancer.
Roberts graduated from Arsenal Technical High School where she was involved in yearbook, journalism, and an IT program. She served at Second Helpings, was active with Upward Bound, and was a geometry tutor. Two things that are obvious about her are that she cares deeply for others, and she is interested in hardcore facts.
Both characteristics served her well when she first received her diagnosis. The daughter of William and Debra Roberts has four siblings - Chris and Kyra are older; Cholee and Caleb are younger. At the hospital, family members and college friends – the same people she cares about so deeply, surrounded her.
“My friends and family have been beyond supportive. When I was in the hospital, I’d have five-minute meetings with everyone who came to visit. I got socially exhausted from all the company,” said Roberts. Fellow IU residence hall assistants carpooled to Indianapolis to visit and bring gifts. Members of her church, Berean Bible Study, offered up prayers and meals.
And then there were the hardcore facts.
Roberts is in the care of IU Health’s Dr. Paul Helft who specializes in gastrointestinal oncology.
“I love him so much because he doesn’t hide the truth,” said Roberts “He is the most calming physician I have ever met. The day he told me I would most likely have cancer the rest of my life, I was devastated. Because of COVID, I was also alone. I was in the patient room by myself and he hugged me and told me it was ok to let it out,” said Roberts. “He shared with me that he has a son my age and he said ‘I’ll treat you like my own,’ and he has.”
After diagnosis, Roberts left the IU Bloomington campus, set the pause button for school and moved home with her parents. She underwent genetic testing to determine if her cancer was hereditary – an aunt died at age 32, and a grandfather at the age of 65 – both from complications associated with colon cancer. Roberts’ diagnosis was not genetic.
She began treatment with four different types of chemotherapy -14-day cycles every two weeks – at IU Health Simon Cancer Center.
“Because I’m so young they said they were going to hit it with everything they had,” said Roberts. Her side effects included exhaustion, hair loss, bleeding gums, and neuropathy in her hands and feet. On Jan. 3, 2021 she cut her hair.
“I’ve lost weight and I’ve gained weight. It has been a bumpy ride but after eight rounds of chemotherapy, I’m now on a maintenance chemo pill and a three-week infusion schedule,” said Roberts.
Her energy is returning, her tumors are asleep, and Roberts has taken on a personal project – researching the best food sources to help her fight the cancer. She is easing her way back into school with her focus on a career as an actuary. She also hopes to one day open a restaurant that offers healthy options to those fighting cancer, and also start a foundation to help younger people who have a cancer diagnosis.
But that’s not all. As she rebounds from her treatment, Roberts is speaking out to her friends and family members about taking care of their health. Her family has started a web page guided by Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Roberts includes the hash tag “#NevertooYoung,” in her posts.
“I want younger people to know that they are not exempt from cancer. I have met people in their 30s with colon cancer and here I am in my 20s,” said Roberts. “I tell my friends and my siblings that cancer doesn’t care how old you are but there are things you can do right now to take better care of your body, so do it. You are never too young.”