CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It’s been a harrowing couple of years for 24 year old Charlie Robuck. The Wilmington native and newlywed was just 22 years old when doctors diagnosed him with rectal cancer in 2016. A newly minted college grad at the time - he and his high school sweetheart and now-wife, Courtney, were to new Charlotte.
“Then two months later in February I got my first job out of college,” he recalled. “I was out here [in Charlotte] and I got that job and I was excited and then three months later in May I got diagnosed with cancer and I was like, what?! Despite his age, Charlie says troubling symptoms pushed him to see a specialist. “I knew it was in my digestive system and as far as I know I’ve never been constipated,” he said as he named his symptoms. “If there's blood in your stool something is not correct."
The gastroenterologist brought him in right away and recommended a colonoscopy. "Two days later I got a call and I was at work, and he was like, "Well, you have rectal cancer’,” he recalled. “When I got off the phone I sat there and I just got - I just broke down. I was like I can’t believe this happened to me.”
But - Charlie didn’t spend a lot of time wallowing and neither did Courtney. "She was like, 'Alright, you need to get up, we need to go do this,” he said. “You need to eat, you need to try at least and do things so I’m glad she took that approach to it. And, I’m glad she didn’t turn and like, ‘I can’t handle this’.” Nor did she get squeamish about the often graphic realities of rectal cancer.
“We can get into if you want to but we did a lot of stuff that married people probably won’t ever go through together,” he said, laughingly. “I don’t know - some stuff you save for the support group. I think people can put their imagination to what things would be with colorectal cancer and side effects and dealing with stuff - in that region.”
It took eight rounds of chemo, dozens of radiation treatments and surgery to rid Charlie of the cancer. He's still recovering from the side effects of chemo -- mainly peripheral neuropathy which causes tingling or cold sensation in your hands and feet -- which took its toll. “You have like tingling sensation or cold sensation in your hands or feet,” he explained.
“You can’t drink cold things like you gotta get water with no ice or something like that. It’s almost like a burning going down your throat. Gotta have like gloves to reach into the fridge because to hold a bottle of cold something, that’s just hurts. I remember trying to make you know even a cold-cut sandwich and grab like the slices of turkey and I would have to quickly grab and put in on the bread and shake my hand off. I couldn’t like believe that - it would do that much. Still right now, my hands have gone back to normal but I can - sitting here right now, I can’t feel my feet, really. They feel completely cold and numb."
Charlie’s diagnosis took his doctors by surprise. “I remember meeting doctors and they were like, ‘I took a second look at the date of birth on your records. Are you sure this was written correctly?’,” he remembered.
Even though over a six year period from 2011 -2017, Novant Health’s Cancer Center said it saw an 7 percent increase in cases in people under the age of 50. “Many young patients will present with some of the same symptoms but because colorectal is not as common in the younger patient it is something that is often overlooked or not investigated further,” said Dr. William Warlick, Charlie’s oncologist and a 20-year veteran of the field.
Still, he says the underlying reason for the increase is still unclear. “There has not been an obvious explanation to why we're seeing higher colorectal cancers in younger patients,” he said. “It is being looked into as a combination of genetics, environmental and other areas but there's not been a clear reason why there's been that uptick.”
Because symptoms are often not investigated further, younger people are also have an advanced stage of the disease when finally diagnosed. “In fact, when we looked back at our 2017 data, 48 percent patients presented with stage three or higher,’ he pointed out. “And that's because people may have symptoms for longer periods of time before they bring it to the attention of their doctor or even go in at all. So we've seen a larger number of patients who have more advanced disease.”
And yet, the rarity of his diagnosis -- he's the youngest patient his team has ever treated -- has grown on him. “It's kind of cool to be unique in that way,” he said.
Charlie also believes getting rectal cancer was a blessing in disguise. “I think it was meant for me to happen,” he said. “Meant for it to happen now because I definitely learned a lot about myself and learned a lot about it and my mindset about things has changed, too. Before I was kinda like, 'oh we're gonna get a job. We're gonna make some money and I’m going to buy a nice house, nice cars and go on vacation, what not'. I definitely want to now give back in a way of like advocating.
Not exactly the perspective you’re used to hearing from a millennial – but not at all a surprise to Dr. Warlick. “He's been quite a remarkable young man,” he said. He took it on and took it head on and got through the treatments and did not look back or feel sorry for himself. He said this is the cards that have been dealt and he played them as good as you can. He has done remarkably well and the further we get out the better it is as far as long-term cure and a wonderful life ahead.”
Something Charlie says he’s looking forward to. “I always have to keep reminding myself that everybody’s like on their own party and everything,” he said. “So it’s OK now that I’ve come to terms with it it’s fine.”
He also plans to be at this year’s annual Get Your Rear In Gear 5K Walk/Run that raises money for research and to find a cure for colorectal cancers. For more information on the race, click here.