Alumni Focus: Live like Rach

A mission to raise awareness of young-onset colorectal cancer

After losing their daughter, Rachel, to early onset colorectal cancer, Pat and Eric Monson have established a “Live Like Rach” fund through the Dakota Medical Foundation to raise awareness and save lives.

Before Pat Monson’s daughter, Rachel Ellingson, ’05, ’09, passed away at the age of 36, she gave her mom a mission. “I know the mission she’s given me is to raise awareness and prevent this from happening to others,” said Pat, ’72, ’79.

Rachel was just 33-year old when the symptoms began — constipation, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and blood in her stools. She went to the doctor but was told not to worry. It was just Irritable Bowel Syndrome or hemorrhoids, the doctor said. She was too young to have colorectal cancer.

Rachel then ignored her symptoms for several months, until she couldn’t disregard them any longer. “She went to a second doctor who also said hemorrhoids, but Rachel knew it was something much more serious and insisted on seeing a gastroenterologist. By the time Rachel was seen by the specialist, the tumor was so large, he could feel it with just a rectal exam,” explained Pat.

As the days passed, Rachel endured more testing and was soon diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer that had spread to her liver and lungs.

“I had been visiting her in New York the weekend before and we were buying her wedding dress. She was acting different and I could just sense something was wrong,” Pat said of her daughter’s behavior leading up to the day she received the devastating news.

At the time of her diagnosis, Rachel, a 2009 UND School of Law graduate, was working as an attorney for a top litigation management company in New York City. She was engaged to the love of her life, Daniel Dean, and dreaming of a fairy-tale wedding in New Orleans.

“She was determined to have that beautiful wedding she had always imagined,” said her mom.

Despite all she had been going through with surgeries and chemotherapy, Rachel and Daniel were married Oct. 22, 2016, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in the French Quarter. “It was just a perfect day. A brass band escorted them down the street. There were people everywhere taking pictures. Rachel looked so beautiful,” Pat said.

Those who knew Rachel best say that magical wedding day was a single snapshot as to how she lived life every day. Shortly after her diagnosis, Rachel traveled halfway around the world and back to the Philippines for work with a stop in Hong Kong before meeting Daniel in Dubai, then flying to London and finally back to New York. Her desire to live life to the fullest was never dampened by her diagnosis — hence, the name of the Monsons’ campaign to raise awareness of early onset colorectal cancer, “Live like Rach”.

Rachel Ellingson

According to the National Cancer Institute, cases of young-onset colorectal cancer have risen by 51 percent over the last 25 years. In addition, cases of colorectal cancer in people under age 50 are expected to nearly double by 2030.  Pat says young people who come to the doctor with symptoms like Rachel’s need to be taken seriously. That’s why she and her husband, Eric Monson, ’75, have teamed up with the Dakota Medical Foundation (DMF) to set up a fund to raise awareness.

Since its inception in March, proceeds in the DMF fund have established a full-page ad in The Forum of Fargo Moorhead titled, “Live Like Rach”, posters have been printed that will hang in the halls of UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences to raise awareness for those “first in line” when a patient comes in to the doctor’s office with symptoms, and a “Live Like Rach” group will be joining forces at the Fargo Marathon 5K in honor of their “force” named Rachel.

“She didn’t want anybody else to be diagnosed and suffer what she did. This is my mission,” Pat said.

Since publicly sharing Rachel’s story, the Monsons have heard from several young people who stopped ignoring their own symptoms because of Rachel. “There is one young woman who is friends with our other daughter, Rebecca, and she told us that Rachel died on her 36th birthday. She had recently been having symptoms like Rachel’s, and after hearing her story she went to the doctor and had a colonoscopy and they found pre-cancerous polyps. Rachel saved her life,” said Pat.

During most of Rachel’s cancer fight, she was a patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and was one of the patients who inspired the establishment of the Center for Young Onset Colorectal Cancer there. The Monsons and DMF are currently in the process of collaborating with Sloan Kettering to further fight this awful disease through the “Live Like Rach” fund. “Rachel is making such a huge difference in such a short amount of time,” said her mother.

In addition to raising awareness of colorectal cancer, Pat smiles and says everyone should “Live like Rach” every day because Rach always “went big” and truly lived.

“She was such a free spirit. She was so kind and so gracious, tolerant and not judgmental. She loved everyone for who they were and genuinely cared about all people. She was strong, courageous and faced her fears with dignity and poise.”

To support the “Live Like Rach” fund through the Dakota Medical Foundation or get involved in the Monsons’ mission, visit www.impactgiveback.org

About the Author:Leanna Ihry

Leann Ihry, ’02, is an Impact Writer at the University of North Dakota Alumni Association and Foundation. Since graduating from UND with a degree in communication in 2002, Ihry, a native of Leeds, N.D., has had an extensive career in public/community affairs and local television media in Grand Forks.