‘You would never expect it’: Mother battles colon cancer as cases among younger population rise

MADISON, Wis. -Colon cancer doesn’t just impact older adults – it’s now on the rise among younger people.

Joslyn Benrud was a senior litigation paralegal, wife, and mother to her young daughter, Analise, when she got her colon cancer diagnosis at the age of 34.

“If you’ve ever met the most kind person in the world and thoughtful person, you’ve met Joslyn,” said her sister-in-law Megan Malek. “The day before there was any symptoms, she was doing Pilates. Right now, I don’t know of any health concerns with myself. She felt like I do today, nothing wrong.”

A cancer diagnosis takes away a lot. For Benrud the surprise stage two colon cancer diagnosis in early 2019 came after a ruptured appendix and emergency surgery. The cancer has not only cost a large amount of money in treatment, but has taken away her ability to work.

“She dedicated her life to her job,” Malek said. “You really don’t know how to handle it. It was tough. You would never expect it from someone in their early thirties.”

“We are seeing a pretty steep increase among younger people,” said Dr. Noelle LoConte, an associate professor of medicine at UW-Health. “The asterisk to that is that the initial rates were very low, like one to two percent. Now they’re like four percent, which is truly doubling.”

LoConte said it’s unknown why this is happening, but pointed to theories such as increased obesity, more processed food and less activity. She said drinking in moderation and staying physically active can help prevent colon cancer, as well as proper screening.

Although the vast majority of colon cancer cases are still seen in adults older than 40, she said it’s important to remember it can affect those who are younger.

“One of the messages to primary care doctors is bleeding is never normal. Don’t assume it’s hemorrhoids in a young person,” LoConte said. “The stage in which you are diagnosed predicts the chance of survival or a cure.”

Benrud said doctors estimated she had the cancerous mass three to five years before it ruptured her appendix, although she had no symptoms. After a major surgery at the end of last year that aimed to rid her body of cancer, Benrud is now in stage four, continuing chemo treatments.

“She’s fighting for her life,” Malek said. “She’s fighting to beat this.”

The pandemic is also taking a toll, meaning time spent out of the house, seeing friends and visitors at the hospital are off the table.

“It’s really tough,” Benrud said. “I don’t think I realized how tough it would be.”

“(We’re) being a little extra isolated in the house — just not willing to take a chance of getting any kind of cold with a suppressed immune system like she has,” her husband David Benrud said.

Joslyn Benrud said that her nurses at the UW Carbone Cancer Center help when she’s not allowed visitors.

“The nurses at Carbone are amazing,” she said. “When they’re on breaks they sit outside my door and just chat with me to try to keep me in a good state of mind, because they know how critical visitors are.”

Benrud and her family urge others to advocate for their health and be aware of the possibility of colon cancer.

“For us, we just want people to be aware and listen to your body and if something seems off, advocate for yourself, because you don’t want to get to the point I’m at, where we’re at stage four and you don’t have a lot of options,” she said.

She and her family are holding on to what they do have.

“(We) try to enjoy every good moment we can,” Joslyn Benrud said. “We keep the hope and the faith high in our family.”

That includes her daughter.

“Having her around is like a saving grace,” she said.

“I think four-year-old Analise is a zest of life that keeps things rolling as much as possible,” Malek said “I think all you kind of have is hope.”

Benrud currently receives chemo treatments every other week and said her team of medical professionals are always on the lookout for new treatments or clinical trials.

Benrud’s family is hosting a virtual fundraiser through Sunday. That can be found here.