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Colon Cancer Scare Turns Younger Survivor into Advocate

Monday, August 09, 2021 10:40 AM

With a husband, three children, and a thriving commercial cleaning business, Vladanka “Val” Todorovic of Elmhurst has a lot on her plate. Her super busy life became even more complicated when the 44-year-old Todorovic developed a set of troubling gastrointestinal (GI) issues that would not go away.

“It made my life much more worrisome,” she recalled. “Initially, I thought stress or maybe a new diet was affecting my intestines and my stomach.”

Val Todorovic

Warning Signs
As Todorovic’s bouts of nausea, constipation, and diarrhea became even more frequent and severe, she finally decided to seek help. Her primary care physician encouraged her to not delay care and referred her to NorthShore Gastroenterologist Laura Bianchi, MD, who specializes in women’s GI health.

“We talked candidly about the changes Val noticed in her bowel habits,” Dr. Bianchi explained. “It’s not uncommon for younger adults like Val to minimize symptoms, which can lead to a delay in diagnosis. Based on the continuing severe symptoms, I felt it was critical to get her in for a colonoscopy and upper endoscopy so we could evaluate things further.”

The diagnostic procedures lead to a dangerous discovery: Todorovic had colon cancer. Dr. Bianchi acted quickly, partnering with Colorectal Surgeon Joseph Muldoon, MD, and Medical Oncologist Matt Adess, MD, to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. The collaborative team first scheduled surgery to remove 12 inches of Todorovic’s colon, followed by six months of chemotherapy. All three NorthShore specialists hold academic appointments at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

Alarming Trend
Todorovic’s health scare unfortunately is not that surprising. While the U.S. colon cancer rate is dropping among people 65 and older, it’s rising in younger age groups, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). In 2020, 12 percent of new cases were diagnosed in people under age 50. It prompted ACS to change its guidelines for colonoscopies. Once recommended for people age 50 and up, it is now recommended for patients when they turn 45.

“Most cancer screening tests are focused on early detection, and it’s important to remember that colon cancer is preventable,” added Dr. Bianchi. “Removing polyps during colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer before it develops. That’s why it’s truly the ‘gold standard’ for screening.”

Four years after her surgery and treatment, Todorovic’s life is back to normal and she expects to be pronounced cancer-free this year. She is quick to express gratitude for Dr. Bianchi and her team. “The NorthShore doctors and support staff do a great job! I’m so glad I went there and they made me feel so comfortable. Because my life was so fast-paced and busy, I didn’t even think about cancer. I totally relied on their guidance and expertise.

Based on her experience, Todorovic now eagerly encourages others to not delay seeking medical attention for unusual symptoms

“I tell everyone that when they feel something different is going on in their body, go to the doctor. Don’t wait!”