Doctors in the Philadelphia suburbs are seeing an increase in the disease in young people.
Mindy Phelps thought she’d caught a stomach virus on one of her overseas work trips. Months later, when her symptoms reoccurred, the 43-year-old Malvern mom went for a blood test at Paoli Hospital. That same day, with her family’s bags packed for a weekend getaway, a doctor called to say that she needed emergency testing. After a colonoscopy and PET scan, Phelps was told she had Stage IV colon cancer that had spread to her liver and lung. “My daughter, Anna, had just turned 7, and I didn’t want to miss her life,” says Phelps. “But the doctors told me I had a year or two to live.”
Phelps fought with everything she had, surviving grueling surgeries and chemotherapy at Lankenau Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. At one point, the 5-foot-7 Phelps weighed only 95 pounds. She credits her doctors and her husband, Tim, with getting her through all that misery. “And my mom came over every day to take care of me,” she adds. “She showered me, dressed me and fed me when I couldn’t do those things myself.”
Colorectal cancer is curable—“but only when it’s caught in its early stages,” says Dr. John Marks. “And it’s not getting caught as early as it should be.”
A Main Line Health surgeon who specializes in minimally invasive procedures at the Colorectal Center at Lankenau Medical Center, Marks is the doctor Phelps credits with saving her life. He’s seeing a rise in Stage IV colorectal cancer diagnoses, particularly among patients under age 50. Dr. Sameer Gupta, a hematologist-oncologist with Bryn Mawr Medical Specialists, is witnessing the same thing. “Most patients don’t have any predisposing factors, so we don’t know why there’s been an increase in this cancer in young people,” he says.
While colorectal cancer is easily detectible via colonoscopies, 45 is the age when tests are recommended. “And that’s only for asymptomatic patients,” says Marks. “People having symptoms need to tell a doctor so more serious problems can be ruled out.”
Alas, those symptoms—diarrhea, bloating, bloody stool, changes in the frequency of bowel movements—are often attributed to stomach flu, food poisoning, ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.
Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 19, Newtown Square’s Nicole Obenski spent her college years chugging Imodium and avoiding certain foods. Stomach issues became an uncomfortable part of her life, but when her symptoms worsened, Obenski and her husband, Matt, knew something was wrong. In January 2017, Obenski—then 32—was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer that had spread to her liver, lymph nodes and abdominal cavity.
Unlike Phelps, Obenski was not an immediate candidate for surgery. The mass in her colon was 8 centimeters, and one in her liver was more than 6 centimeters. Gupta, Obenski’s oncologist, put her on three chemotherapy drugs to shrink them so surgeons could remove them. The treatment was brutal, but it allowed Penn Medicine’s Dr. Najjia Mahmoud to resect part of Obenski’s colon. Penn Medicine’s Dr. Robert Roses removed the masses in Obenski’s liver.
By March 2018, Obenski was cancer free, and she resumed her job as a special education and biology teacher at Radnor High School. She also raised $10,000 for the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. She wants to raise awareness about the symptoms and motivate people to get screened. She also wants to experience motherhood, a goal complicated by the maintenance oral chemotherapy Gupta prescribed. This past December, she and her husband were considering surrogacy and adoption.
A few days before Christmas, though, Obenski learned that her cancer returned, and she resumed chemotherapy immediately. Gupta doesn’t believe in giving survival odds, only saying that he’ll treat his patient with every medicine at his disposal. “Dr. Gupta didn’t give up on me,” says Obenski. “When your doctor believes in you, you start to believe in yourself.”
As for Phelps, she’s been cancer free for five years and long ago resumed her job as a high-powered executive. For Stage IV colon cancer, the American Cancer Society puts the five-year survival rate at 12 percent, and Phelps knows she’s an outlier. “There were six of us getting colorectal cancer care at Sloane Kettering,” she says. “I’m the only one still alive.”