Riley Castro was just 17 weeks pregnant when doctors discovered she had Stage 4 colon cancer. She and her baby, Bryelle, have an amazing story to tell.

CRESTVIEW — Riley Castro was just 17 weeks pregnant when she started having abdominal pains on her left side.

"Doctors thought it was a twisted ovary," Castro said.

During an exploratory surgery, doctors discovered that part of her intestine was dead. When she woke up from the surgery, her mother was at her bedside crying. Doctors gave her a list of possible diagnoses. One of them was cancer, but at 24 that was the last thing on Castro's mind.

But there it was. Stage 4 colon cancer. "The end stage," she said.

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Castro wasn't just responsible for keeping herself alive, but her baby, too. She was well into her second trimester.

"For a second I even forgot I was pregnant," Castro said. "I asked, 'What does that even mean? How do I get treatment?' "

Fight or flight

Castro, who was living in New Mexico at the time before her recent move to Crestview, started her treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Due to her pregnancy, she couldn't undergo CT or MRI scans, but instead had ultrasounds of her liver and kidneys. She was told she had about an 11 percent chance to live five years.

Her parents begged her to put herself first. Castro opted to seek treatment that would be safe for both her and her baby. That meant she could not get radiation treatment, and her chemotherapy would be a low-dose called 5-FU.

"I was in fight-or-flight mode," Castro said. "I wanted my baby to get through it with me. I would talk to her while she was in my stomach and tell her to keep on fighting."

Fighting alongside Castro and her daughter was her family, her husband James and his Air Force squadron. James is now stationed at Duke Field.

To control her chemo rounds, Castro had to be induced to deliver her baby, who was born five weeks early on June 12, 2015, after Castro started having eclampsia, which can cause seizures. The baby weighed 4 pounds, 4 ounces.

She named her daughter, Bryelle, which is Celtic for "strength of God."

It was a natural birth, but Castro said she doesn't remember much due to her medications.

"I remember my water breaking, getting the sensation to push and I remember them putting her on my chest," Castro said. "It was all very quick."

After taking a month off of chemotheraphy after the birth, Castro started rounds again. This time, she brought company.

"I call her my infusion baby," Castro said. "She'd would sleep in my arms. Her first steps were in the infusion room."

Bryelle will be the last pregnancy Castro has, which is bittersweet. As a medical precaution she had a hysterectomy. Castro said she asked her husband if it bothered him, since he came from a large family.

They both choose to be grateful for their happy and healthy 2-year-old.

"I love watching her learn from stuff you do," Castro said. "She loves to dance and she loves animals."

The Colon Club

In February this year, Castro celebrated one year in cancer remission — as well as earning her master's degree.

Her days are no longer consumed by treatments and worrying. Instead, she's caring for her daughter and working from home as a therapist.

She's not only a survivor, but an advocate for the cause. She shares her story with groups such as Colon Club or American Cancer Society. She says she wants the blue ribbon, which is a symbol for colon cancer, to be as popular as breast cancer's pink ribbon. She'll join forces with other cancer survivors in September to lobby for cancer programs.

According to a recent study from the American Cancer Society, new cases of colon and rectal cancer are occurring at an increasing rate among young and middle-aged adults. The recommended age for colon screenings begins at 50 years old, but Castro advises some not to wait.

"I can't stress enough to people to be their own advocate when it comes to their health," she said. "And a colonoscopy is nothing compared to cancer. Some people are embarrassed to talk about it, but I want to break that stigma."

One day when Bryelle's old enough, Castro will share that story with her daughter.

"I want her to know what she overcame before she was even born," she said. "I want that to be a inspiration to her to be there for other people."