BORDENTOWN TOWNSHIP, NJ – New Jersey resident Yvonne “Vonnie” Braasch was a healthy, active 46-year-old when she started having some abdominal discomfort in July 2020.
After her blood work results came back abnormal, her doctor scheduled follow-up imaging for further review. However, before that appointment date could come, Vonnie’s pain got worse, and on July 26 she found herself in the Emergency Room, where a CT Scan was performed.
Expecting doctors to say that Vonnie’s gall bladder was inflamed, her family was “completely stunned when the doctor came in and told us her liver was covered in cancer,” said Larry, her husband of nearly 26 years. Further testing then revealed that the primary source of the cancer was from a tumor in Yvonne’s colon, and that the cancer had metastasized to her liver, lungs and lymphatic system.
Vonnie had no family history of colon cancer and no symptoms of any medical problems until July. Even routine blood work taken in January 2020 was normal. In other words, she was not “high risk” to have colon cancer.
“My wife went from being a healthy, vibrant, exercising, organic food-eating woman, to being a Stage IV colon cancer patient overnight,” said Braasch.
Vonnie underwent multiple surgeries, hospital stays and rounds of chemotherapy. However, she died on September 27, 2020 -- only 8 weeks from when she was first diagnosed in the Emergency Room.
Braasch is now trying to make sure that other New Jersey families do not have to go through what he and his children, son Evan, 20 and daughter Lydia, 18, have faced. Currently, health benefit plans in New Jersey are only required to cover colon cancer screenings for people age 50 and over, unless a person younger than 50 is considered “high risk”. “High risk” factors include a family history of colon cancer or polyps, chronic inflammatory bowel disease and lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity and moderate to heavy alcohol use -- none of which applied to Vonnie Braasch.
Insurance companies in New Jersey are not required to cover people at “average” risk until they reach 50.
“Before she died, my wife made me promise to get a colonoscopy so that what happened to her wouldn’t happen to me and leave our kids without any parents,” said Braasch. “I am only 47 years old and, while my doctor did give me the referral for a colonoscopy, without the insurance coverage the referral is meaningless.”
New Jersey’s current law is inconsistent with recommendations by the American Cancer Society (ACS), which updated its guidelines in May 2018 to recommend that colon cancer screenings be started at age 45 due to a declining age of onset. Colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed among adults in the United States, and the third leading cause of death from cancer. Early detection, however, is key in fighting the disease. According to the ACS, when colon cancer is found at an early stage before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 90 percent. However, only about 4 out of 10 colon cancers are found at this early stage, and when cancer has spread outside the colon or rectum, the survival rates are lower.
The ACS says about 1 in 3 people in the United States who should get tested for colon cancer have never been screened. This may be because they don’t know that regular testing could save their lives from the disease or due to cost and health insurance coverage issues.
The Braasch family is urging the passage of legislation which would change New Jersey law to require that health benefit plans cover regular colon cancer screenings at age 45 instead of 50. Assembly bill A-5034, sponsored by Assemblymembers Daniel Benson, Carol Murphy and Herb Conaway, and the identical Senate bill S-3282, sponsored by Senator Vin Gopal, are currently waiting to be heard in Committee.
“(These bills) are an effort to bring our laws up to date. Each day that it isn’t passed, New Jersey residents are being harmed as it increases the likelihood that people will be further along in the cancer staging as the diagnosis will be later,” said Braasch. “Had her doctor recommended that she get screened when she was 45, my wife most certainly would have had a colonoscopy and would likely still be with me and our kids.”
On Monday evening, both the Bordentown Township Committee and the Bordentown City Commissioners passed “Vonnie’s Resolution” to support the legislation, which they say has “the potential to save the lives of countless others.”
Braasch also points the finger at the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), a panel made up of primary care clinicians that evaluates evidence to determine whether screenings and preventative medications work for people who have no symptoms of a disease, and whose guidelines help determine national policy and inform doctors on when to make a recommendation. The USPSTF’s website has listed colon cancer screenings as a topic that is an “update in progress” since early 2019. Braasch says that “time is of the essence, and they need to act.”
“My wife died while they have been deliberating, and I don’t want anyone else to have to endure this type of pain because (the USPSTF) can’t overcome their own inertia,” he said.
Braasch is sharing Vonnie’s story so that other families can be spared the heartache that he and his children have endured. He wants to make sure people aware of the risks of colon cancer, the need to get screened if they are currently eligible and the need to lower the age of coverage so that more people can get screened and be “spared the devastation that colon cancer brings.”
Braasch says that even in the days before she passed away, Vonnie encouraged everyone to “be your own advocate” and get a colonoscopy in a goodbye video she posted on Facebook.
“Up until the very end, she was so concerned about helping others,” he said.
To sign a change.org petition in support of A-5034 and S-3282, as well as to find contact information for your State Legislators to urge their support of the bills, click HERE.