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Living and Learning

Signs of Colon Cancer

There are a number of common signs of colon and rectal cancer. Many are not so common, and youth should not be considered a factor in dismissing any of these symptoms. As Gina Benedetti wants everyone under fifty to know, Colon Cancer is not just an old person’s disease. The following symptoms come from the 2017 edition of “On the Rise.”

• Diarrhea lasting more than a few days.

• Constipation lasting more than a few days.

• Unintended or unexplained weight loss.

• Vomiting.

• Changes in stool, including narrow stools (described as “pencil-thin poo.”)

• Gas, bloating, and cramps.

• Severe abdominal pain.

• Blood in stool.

“I used to think I would make my mark in the world by teaching children,” admits Gina Benedetti, a native of Yakima, Washington, now a Petaluma resident and fourth-grade teacher at Penngrove Elementary School. Previously, she taught first-grade in San Rafael for two years.

“Teaching,” says Benedetti (no relation to the local dairy family), “was always how I thought I would give something back to the world. But now I realize that’s only part of my purpose — and the other part is to spread the word about colon cancer, that it’s not just an old man’s disease.”

Benedetti was 37 when she was diagnosed with Stage-III colon cancer — “A sneeze away from stage IV,” she says — shortly after giving birth to her son in September of 2014. Two months after delivering the baby by C-section, she began getting stomach cramps every morning, but assumed it was related to her pregnancy and the surgery.

“My C-section was the first surgery I’d ever had,” she says. “Suddenly, my stomach hurt. I was losing all my baby-weight rapidly. At first, I just assumed it was some super-power I had, that it was just easy for me to lose weight. Well, now I know that weight loss is one of the signs of colon cancer.”

Other symptoms appeared, including blood in her stool, but again, she assumed it was related to having just given birth, and dismissed it as probable hemorrhoids. Benedetti says that the possibility of colon cancer never even occurred to her because of her young age. That assumption, she now says — that those under 50 are not at risk for colorectal cancers — is a strong contributing factor as to why so many younger folks do not visit their doctor, or get properly diagnosed, until it’s too late.

“Colorectal cancer affects plenty of people under 50 years old, and the statistics show those numbers are rising,” she says.

Fortunately, just to be safe, Benedetti emailed her doctor and described her symptoms.

“She ordered a whole slew of tests, and everything came back normal,” Benedetti says. “Just to be extra sure, she ordered the same tests again two weeks later, and again, everything seemed normal. So she referred me to an allergist, and a GI doctor. The allergist said, ‘Not allergies,’ and the GI doctor said, ‘Probably nothing to worry about, but let’s schedule a colonoscopy anyway and see how you do.’ So I went in for the procedure, thinking that the worst case scenario was that I had Crone’s Disease.”

What the doctor found, however, was a tumor.

“It was almost a complete blockage in my intestines,” she says.

Benedetti had a CAT Scan the next day.

“I remember my GI doctor calling and saying, ‘Good news! The cancer hasn’t spread to your liver.’ And I said, ‘What?’ I didn’t even know that was a thing. I didn’t know anything about cancer then. Not a thing.”

That has certainly changed.

All through the process of surgery — which called for the removal of 28 lymph nodes and 16 centimeters of her sigmoid colon — and six months of chemotherapy, Benedetti did intense research on her disease.

“I’ve learned so much!” she says. “And one of the things I learned was how lucky I was. Really, a lot of people my age would not have caught it in time. I’m so thankful I have a doctor who took this seriously.”

Signs of Colon Cancer

There are a number of common signs of colon and rectal cancer. Many are not so common, and youth should not be considered a factor in dismissing any of these symptoms. As Gina Benedetti wants everyone under fifty to know, Colon Cancer is not just an old person’s disease. The following symptoms come from the 2017 edition of “On the Rise.”

• Diarrhea lasting more than a few days.

• Constipation lasting more than a few days.

• Unintended or unexplained weight loss.

• Vomiting.

• Changes in stool, including narrow stools (described as “pencil-thin poo.”)

• Gas, bloating, and cramps.

• Severe abdominal pain.

• Blood in stool.

Then, while doing online research, immediately after her surgery, Benedetti discovered “The Colon Club,” a nonprofit devoted to spreading the word that colon cancer is a danger to people who fall into the younger-than-fifty category. For several years, the organization spread the word with an annual calendar — they call it “The Colondar” — featuring survivors of colorectal cancer posing with their scars showing. In recent years, it’s become a glossy magazine called “On The Rise,” which similarly features cancer survivors under 50, displaying their scars, and telling their inspiring personal stories.

On a whim, Benedetti applied to be considered as a model for the project.

“And … I was selected!” she says, clearly still a bit surprised. “Last June, I was flown out to Nashville for the photo shoot, along with all the other models. They really pampered us. It was amazing.”

The resulting magazine, in which Benedetti appears on page 62 — “Compared to some of the others, my scar is so small!” she notes — only served to galvanize her resolve to be more than just a cancer survivor.

“I’m a cancer spokesperson now,” she says. “That’s my life. It’s a big part of who I am now.”

Last year, she took one her new job at Penngrove Elementary, and shortly after went to Washington D.C., along with some of her fellow “On The Rise” survivors, to speak with lawmakers about the importance of early detection, funding for research, and increased awareness of the dangers of Colon Cancer. She’s growing more accustomed to the spotlight, telling her story as a guest speaker at cancer awareness events. Next month, she’ll be speaking at a fundraiser in her own home town of Yakima.

“Cancer has changed my life in so many ways,” she says. “It’s weird how empowering it’s been. But this is my life now. I want to get the word out. I want people to see me — this relatively young, healthy person — and hear my story.”

Adds Benedetti, “Because if cancer can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

(Email author at david.templeton@argus-courier.com)