Shawn Dunbrack diagnosed at 53

I am Shawn Dunbrack of Marlinton, West Virginia. I began volunteering with Marlinton Fire & Rescue at the age of 14 as a junior member. I spent 28 years as a very active member of the department, focusing mostly on EMS responses. After retiring from active duty with fire and EMS, I have been employed for the last 8 years with the West Virginia Emergency Management Division as a regional liaison, covering 10 rural mountain counties of the state.

I’ve always considered myself a healthy person, despite being slightly overweight. I could count on one hand the number of times I had been to the doctor in my adult life. At 53 years old, I prided myself on being on no medications, never using tobacco of any kind and never drinking alcohol. Going to the doctor, even for routine checkups, was never something that I did. I considered myself healthy and really felt like it was a waste of my time and money to have a doctor tell me I was good to go.

I began having a very minor ache off and on in my lower left abdomen. It was never all that bad, and I just shrugged it off as a pulled muscle or just the result of being “old and fat.” One day while on an overnight trip for work, I noticed a very small amount of bright red blood on the toilet tissue after a bowel movement. Again, I passed this off as a hemorrhoid or just something I had eaten. My belly pain got a little worse for about a week, and I had another episode with a small amount of blood after a bowel movement at home.

There was no way I could have cancer. I wasn’t sick. I didn’t hurt. I was healthy. I was the person who took care of everyone else.

This time I decided I should probably see a doctor about the bleeding and stomachache. I reluctantly went to my appointment, still with the thought that this would turn out to be hemorrhoids or some kind of infection. After describing my symptoms to the doctor, she ordered blood tests and a CT scan for what she thought was diverticulitis. My blood tests all came back normal, and the doctor was getting ready to write a prescription for antibiotics and send me home. At the last minute, the CT scan results came back and revealed that I had a 14mm thickening of my rectal wall and what looked like tumors in my liver.

When the doctor told me that I have cancer, I nearly fell out of the chair. There was no way I could have cancer. I wasn’t sick. I didn’t hurt. I was healthy. I was the person who took care of everyone else. I had picked up cancer patients in the ambulance, and I wasn’t one of them. I think I spent several minutes in complete denial, ready to walk out of the office and tell them they were wrong. After calling my wife to come to the doctor’s office and hearing the doctor go over the results a second time, it became real — I have cancer. I spent the next several days being as scared as I have ever been.

After a colonoscopy with a biopsy and multiple other tests since that day, I am scheduled to begin chemotherapy for Stage IV rectal cancer with metastasis to my liver. My care team is cautiously optimistic that given my age and general good health I can at least manage the cancer with continued treatment.

I encourage everyone to please know your own body, your health and as soon as anything seems out of the normal range, to seek medical attention. Don’t let your desire to always be the caregiver keep you from getting the care you need.


  • minor ache in the lower left-side of abdomen
  • small amount of bright red blood after a bowel movement

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