Stomach cancer survivor surprised with car parade
June 22, 2020
MD Anderson has given my husband and me hope for a future together
BY Natalie Salas
In January 2019, my husband, Santiago, began experiencing mild stomach problems. He described it as a pulling sensation in his abdomen. He was 30 years old, very active and healthy. So, his primary care doctor assumed he had just strained a muscle. But by April, he was losing weight and unable to eat a full meal. When we went to a gastrointestinal doctor for a second opinion, they thought he maybe had a parasite, an ulcer or acid reflux.
After a month of tests and no clear answers, an ultrasound at an emergency room near our home in Garland, Texas showed fluid in Santi’s abdomen. He was taken to the hospital and after almost a week of bloodwork, biopsies and imaging, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
You see these kind of moments in movies or hear of other people who go through it, but it is surreal when it happens to you. My body went into shock. I thought the doctors had walked into the wrong room and delivered this news to the wrong people.
We were referred to MD Anderson, and I immediately felt a sense of relief. My husband and I are high school sweethearts, and we will celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary this summer. We still have so much ahead of us that we want to do, and I knew then that coming to MD Anderson would give us our best chance at a future together.
Navigating stomach cancer treatment with our MD Anderson care team
After Santi was diagnosed with stomach cancer in May, things moved very quickly.
My husband was able to start chemotherapy in Dallas within 12 days of his diagnosis. Jaffer Ajani, M.D., worked closely with a local oncologist while Santi began treatment. The chemotherapy regiment was a combination of oxaliplatin, fluorouracil and leucovorin.
In July, we traveled to MD Anderson to meet with Dr. Ajani in person and discuss the results of Santi’s first set of scans since beginning treatment. My husband’s cancer was stage IV and couldn’t be removed with surgery, but Dr. Ajani had a game plan for stopping the disease from spreading. Before the appointment, my anxiety was through the roof, but Dr. Ajani and the rest of our care team eased our minds. They gave us the promise of better times ahead. We felt so hopeful by the end of the day.
We traveled to Houston every other month for scans and appointments with Santi’s care team. By November, he was experiencing symptoms that hadn’t been present for several months, and Dr. Ajani confirmed that there had been minimal progression of the stomach cancer. He adjusted Santi’s chemotherapy regiment to a combination of ramucirumab and paclitaxel. Santi had his first chemotherapy cycle right before Thanksgiving and immediately felt better. We were able to spend a wonderful week celebrating the holiday with family.
New immunotherapy possibilities bring new hope
Santi continued that chemotherapy regimen until this past April. He was becoming uncomfortable, and he had more fluid buildup in his abdomen. Dr. Ajani switched Santi to another chemotherapy regimen: FOLFIRI.
Through additional biopsies, we recently learned that Santi has the PDL1 tumor marker, which qualifies him to receive immunotherapy. We are very excited about this next phase in his treatment – the new possibilities have brought additional hope to our lives.
MD Anderson has been by our side from the beginning. My husband’s care team has always been responsive and answered all of our questions thoughtfully and quickly through MyChart. Whenever we’ve reached a bump in the road, they have maneuvered around the situation and changed the treatment strategy. We are incredibly grateful for their care and expertise during such a confusing time.
Find support for yourself to be a good caregiver
My advice to all caregivers is just to be present. I am a soft-spoken person but during Santi’s treatment, I have found my voice. I am his biggest advocate.
However, caregivers have to find support, too. Whether you find it from your church, your family, friends, or the chaplain or social work counselors at MD Anderson, we all need help. I am a part of an online support group, and it has been so helpful. My support system helps me be a better wife and caregiver. It is a domino effect.
I have learned that it is possible to be realistic but also remain hopeful and positive. We have found that having things on the calendar to look forward to keeps us going. We have been able to travel this past year, cherish friends, spend time with family and grow in our marriage and faith. This journey has allowed us to have a different perspective of what is important.
A magical memory to celebrate Santi’s one-year cancerversary
For the one-year anniversary of Santi’s stomach cancer diagnosis, I wanted to create a good memory for him on an otherwise bad day. Even before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic required social distancing, we had to be careful because the cancer and treatment had weakened Santi’s immune system.
I decided to plan a surprise “Santi-strong”-themed car parade, filled with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and his high school teachers and coaches to drive by our house. Even the Garland Fire Department and local radio station personalities joined in. It was so moving – the day was magical and so emotional, but in the best of ways.
Afterward, my husband said to me, “I can’t believe all of those people came out ... for me.” The amount of support he and I both felt that night is irreplaceable and will last us a lifetime.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
My support system helps me be a better wife and caregiver.