What a Family Wants You To Know About Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer

What a family wants you to know about young-onset colorectal cancer

What a Family Wants You To Know About Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer

About 10% of all colorectal cancer cases are young-onset, occurring before the age of 50, yet it’s still something a young person and their family never expect to deal with. Meredith Potthast – the third oldest of four girls – was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer at just 28 years old. 

Five years later, Meredith passed away at age 33. Leaving behind a husband, three sisters, seven nieces, as well as her mother and father, her family moves through this difficult time of learning what life is like without Meredith. 

Now more than ever, Meredith’s family wants others to know the importance of raising awareness about colorectal cancer and how to end this horrible disease once and for all.

Meredith’s Story

When Meredith began complaining of ongoing pain and digestive issues, she assumed was told it was just irritable bowel syndrome. However, Meredith’s mother – a nurse – encouraged her to seek a colonoscopy. Shortly thereafter, Meredith found out she had stage III colorectal cancer (CRC). 

She started radiation with chemotherapy right away in Louisville, Kentucky, where she and her husband, Jack, lived. She and Jack were high school sweethearts and had been married for over 9 years. Jack worked tirelessly as Meredith’s caregiver, her biggest supporter who was by her side every step of the way.

Meredith received more than 90 rounds of chemotherapy treatments. Sometimes her scans showed stability, but more often than not she was met with the news of metastasis. 

“Even though things were difficult, we didn’t think we were going to lose her,” said Abby Bernhardt, one of Meredith’s sisters. 

A trip to the ER for worsening pain led to the discovery that her cancer has spread. Just three short weeks later, Meredith died in the comfort of her own home surrounded by those she loved.

“We all saw her take her last breath, yet none of us will ever know why this beautiful, service-oriented, soul had to die at 33,” Abby said. 

Grieving in Different Ways

“We all process in different ways,” Abby said. “Some of us are more angry than others and that’s OK. We’re all hitting the steps differently, and yet we’re still in this together. Meredith touched the lives of everyone who knew her.”

While there are no words that can take away the pain that Meredith’s family now faces, comfort can be found in the outpouring of community that they have discovered through this heart wrenching experience. 

“Our family is really close and getting through this together has been paramount,” Abby said. “Still, we’ve been blown away by all the support we’ve received from the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, and all the friends who have shown up to be there for us during this difficult time.”

Lessons Learned from Meredith 

Though Meredith’s life was cut short, she still managed to provide incredible teachings to those who knew and loved her. 

“She always told us that if we wanted to do something, we better do it now,” Abby said. “Meredith reminded us that ‘later’ might not be an option and taught us to appreciate the moments we have more.” 

Meredith was known for her contagious positive spirit and inspired those around her to find the good in everything.

“Even when Meredith was in hospice, she was asking me how my pregnancy was going,” Abby said. “She was a positive beam in people’s lives and she never stopped fighting the good fight. She showed others that cancer didn’t control her life, always happy and focusing on the good.” 

Meredith wanted her loved ones to tend to their emotional well-being, often concerned about how others were doing. 

“She encouraged us to see counselors, to find resources and support through this challenging time,” Abby said. “So now we all do. We let ourselves cry and feel the waves of grief and we’re there for each other. She would have wanted us to be happy.” 

Fundraising for Change & Making a Difference

While no amount of money can ever bring Meredith back, it can help to prevent a similar fate to other individuals and families. That’s why Meredith’s family has helped to raise over $15,000 for the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, whose goal it is to end colorectal cancer in our lifetime. 

“I think people believe because they don’t have CRC or they’re too young to get screened, that they can’t get involved or make an impact, but that’s not true,” Abby said. “There are so many ways you can get involved. You can sign up for a Walk event, follow the Alliance on social media, and promote existing programs, events, and resources. You never know how these actions may touch someone’s life.”

If you are interested in initiating your own fundraiser, you can get started by visiting the Colorectal Cancer Alliance’s website. Additionally, you can browse the many other ways to get involved and help us on our mission to end CRC

Getting Educated About CRC

Meredith’s family wants people to understand that everyone needs to be educated about colorectal cancer, regardless of their risk factors or age. 

“We have no genetic conditions or family history of colorectal cancer,” Abby said. “Still, Meredith got CRC at age 28. Now, everyone in our family gets regular colonoscopies. You can still get CRC without pre-existing factors. It’s important to listen to your body and speak up when unusual things happen.”

It’s not only the general public that needs to be informed about colorectal cancer. The statistics are also news to many medical professionals, as well.

“Start talking to your doctors about CRC,” Abby said. “Make sure they know it’s the second most deadly cancer, the fourth most common, and that young-onset is on the rise. If Meredith had received more education about this from a younger age, things might have been different.”

Meredith’s family hopes that everyone will get the education they need to push back against this disease.

“Some people might not want to get screened, but it’s important to know that this disease can come on very fast and it can take your life. Find out when you need to get screened and get it done for yourself and others,” Abby said. 

Along with Meredith’s family, the Alliance isn’t going to stop spreading this message. We can’t wait for the day when colorectal cancer is no longer claiming lives, no longer breaking hearts, and no longer leaving families grieving.