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24-year-old colon cancer survivor inspired by faith, family

The same week she was set to graduate from college, Adalis Martinez found out she had colon cancer
The same week she was set to graduate from co... 03:06

Her family's bond is evident from the moment you walk in the door. They greet everyone with warm smiles and hot coffee. They chat and laugh together, casually switching from English to Spanish and back. Adalis Martinez wants to thank them for giving her strength when she was diagnosed with colon cancer at 21 years old.

She'd been having symptoms since she was a teenager: occasional nausea and stomach discomfort. Doctors told her she was young and healthy, that it wasn't anything to worry about. But the symptoms persisted and eventually Martinez demanded a colonoscopy.

"We all Google our own symptoms and the worst thing comes up," Martinez says. "The worst that came up for me was colon cancer, and I thought, 'It can't be this bad, but it's worth a check.'"

In May of 2013 -- the week she was scheduled to graduate from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan -- Martinez got the results. Doctors had found a cancerous polyp; she was diagnosed with stage 1 colorectal cancer.

Adalis Martinez, a 24-year-old colon cancer survivor, at her home in the Bronx, New York. CBS News

"I remember sitting in my in the doctor's office and, you know, they try to be like soft about it," recalls Martinez, "but there's no way to sugar coat 'you have cancer.'"

During an eight-hour laparoscopic surgery, doctors removed portions of her colon and rectum. She was given a temporary ileostomy -- an opening in that abdomen that connects with a tube and pouch worn externally so the body can pass waste. She was supposed to have it for five weeks while she recovered from surgery, but pathology showed the cancer had spread to surrounding lymph nodes. Her diagnosis advanced from stage 1 to stage 3. She would need to have chemotherapy and her ileostomy would have to stay for six months.

"My ileostomy was difficult and challenging because it was new and it was different and it wasn't pretty," she says. "It was hard for me to like feel beautiful and feel feminine when I had this thing there."

While her friends were in bikinis at the beach, Martinez was figuring out how to conceal the device under her clothes. She credits her friends and family for giving a boost to her wavering self esteem. "I had amazing people who encouraged me the entire way," Martinez says. "My boyfriend, now fiance, reminded reminded me on a daily basis how beautiful I was."

Adalis Martinez with her boyfriend, now fiance, at the hospital during her treatment for cancer. Adalis Martinez

Though her chemo didn't cause hair loss, it was physically exhausting. She lost weight and had to put a temporarily hold on her burgeoning career as a graphic artist. Her doting brother, Oscar, stayed on top of her appointments and picked up her prescriptions. After six months of chemo, her final appointment was on Christmas Eve.

"Christmas Day was a really great day because I didn't think about having to do that ever again," she says.

The time of year was perhaps even more meaningful because through her cancer ordeal, Martinez says she found faith. "Despite my circumstances I have a greater hope," she says. "If had to remove [cancer] from my history I probably wouldn't ... because through it I came to Christ."

Now two years in remission, Martinez is back on the path she'd always envisioned for herself. She works as a graphic artist, and one of the book covers she designed was named one of the best book covers 2015 by The New York Times.

Her boyfriend, who was with her through it all, recently proposed. "When we say those vows, in sickness in health, oh he means those," she says laughing. "Because through that rough patch he was my rock."

Reflecting on all she's been through, Martinez wants to thank her family. Her mother, who was there every step of the way. Her brother, who she joking calls annoying while sharing tearful gratitude. Her extended family, who joyfully dance with each other in the living room.

"They don't know how to love a little, they only know how to love a lot."

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