Stephen Broussard doesn’t look like the typical colon cancer patient or calendar model for that matter.
But in the Colondar 2.0 calendar/magazine out this month, the 35-year-old former athlete and Iota Elementary School administrator shows off his physique and his surgical scars along with other colon cancer survivors.
Diagnosed in 2012 with stage IV colon cancer, Broussard relentlessly fought the disease. Last year, he agreed to pose shirtless and tell his story to dispel some myths about this type of cancer.
“It’s not an old man’s disease,” he said.
Colorectal cancers are the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance. More than 50,000 people die of the disease each year. The majority of those diagnosed are over 50, but younger people are not immune.
“We’re seeing an increase in the number of younger people getting colon cancer now,” said Dr. Oleana Lamendola, a gastroenterologist at Baton Rouge General. “We don’t know why that is.”
In late 2012, Broussard had seen ribbons of blood in his stool. Doctors treated him for issues they were used to seeing in young, healthy men — internal hemorrhoids, ulcerative colitis and diverticulitis. None of the treatments worked.
“As I got on Dr. Google, I started to learn more and get more frightened of what it could be,” Broussard said.
When no treatments worked, Broussard had a colonoscopy in December. He had a tumor where his sigmoid colon met the rectum, and scans of his chest, abdomen and pelvis found the cancer had spread. There were spots on his liver and lung.
A month later, he started chemotherapy, and in March 2013 he had his first surgery to remove a tumor. Throughout 2013, he endured multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy as scans continued to find spots where the cancer had spread.
The whole time, Broussard never knew his prognosis.
“I don’t know,” Broussard said. “I never asked. I’ve researched enough to know that they can’t tell me. Nobody’s God.”
Survival rates for stage IV patients are low, according to the American Cancer Society.
Many people diagnosed with colon cancer are otherwise healthy, Lamendola said.
“It’s the scariest thing for us,” she said. “People can be relatively healthy and have no symptoms and be diagnosed.”
While Broussard had researched all the possibilities, he had no interest in a doctor’s estimate of his chances.
“Whatever he would tell me is not necessarily what would happen,” Broussard said. “It’s just a guess.”
The diagnosis was difficult. Broussard and his wife, Kay, have three sons — Carter, 9, Kaylor, 6, and Tucker, 3. When Broussard learned of his tumors, Tucker was eight months old.
“It was tough on all of us,” Broussard said.
Last year Broussard flew to London for a cutting-edge surgery to remove nodules in his lungs with lasers, a procedure unavailable in the United States.
And last summer Broussard posed for the Colondar.
Created by The Colon Club, an organization that seeks to spread awareness of the disease, the publication focuses on people younger than 50, who receive just 10 percent of new color cancer diagnoses.
He had gone to the club’s website to learn more about his cancer.
“I went on there looking for help,” he said, “looking for advice and positive stories.”
They had published the calendar for 11 years, and Broussard said he thought it would be cool to be involved and spread the word about the deadly cancer.
He flew to Nashville last June and hung out in a cabin in the mountains of eastern Tennessee with the other models for a few days. The cancer fighters formed a close bond, he said.
When he first posed for his photo, Broussard was wearing a sleeveless shirt.
“I had so many scars they said, ‘Just take the shirt off. We can’t get them all.’ So I took the shirt off,” he said. “Was I nervous? Yes. Was I scared? No. They made it like a family over there. And we still are. We still talk or text message every day.”
He’s the only shirtless model in the calendar.
While research suggests that a diet high in red meat and fat and low in calcium, folate and fiber could increase the risk of colon cancer, studies are not clear about all the causes, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance.
“It’s probably a combination of things, if you ask me,” Broussard said. “Some people it’s genetics, some people it’s diet. Some people it’s environmental. If they knew what caused it, we wouldn’t be talking about it. I wish they did.”
Regular check-ups are key to preventing colon cancer deaths.
The Colon Cancer Alliance suggests people over 50 get screened regularly, especially if they have a family history of colorectal disease. There is a 90 percent survival rate for colon cancer if it is caught before it spreads to other parts of the body.
“It’s preventable if you get it early, but there is still hope, even if you don’t get it early,” Broussard said. “I’m living proof.”