January 15, 2016
Stomach cancer survivor: “You don’t have to go through this alone”
BY Ralph Lilja
For several months before my cancer diagnosis, I experienced bouts of extreme fatigue. At 58, I attributed this to the normal aging process, but at my wife’s urging, I scheduled an appointment with our family doctor. A simple blood test showed that my hemoglobin level was very low. I have a family history of anemia, so I wasn’t that surprised or concerned. After a blood transfusion, I immediately felt better.
But the fatigue came back. After a few transfusions, it became clear that there was more going on than we initially thought. A local oncologist reviewed my case and quickly uncovered the root of my fatigue – stomach cancer. To say I was stunned be would an understatement. My world seemed to suddenly stop.
Finding MD Anderson’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Center
After learning of my diagnosis, two family friends who had recently lost loved ones to cancer called my wife. Their advice? Go to MD Anderson. Both were adamant that if they could do everything over again, they would seek treatment there. My wife did some research that confirmed our friends’ advice: MD Anderson was the top-rated cancer hospital in the country and had a dedicated Gastrointestinal Center.
We scheduled an appointment. After a battery of tests confirmed my original diagnosis, I was referred to gastrointestinal surgeon Keith Fournier, M.D. Upfront, informative and reassuring, Dr. Fournier was someone I immediately knew we could trust. I vividly remember him telling me not to look up survival rates. He assured us that everyone was different and that he could get me through this.
Receiving a total gastrectomy at MD Anderson
Unfortunately, I had already looked up survival rates. That’s why I choose to go with the most aggressive treatment option available: surgery to remove my stomach, known as a total gastrectomy, followed by chemotherapy.
Dr. Fournier told me that learning to adjust to life without a stomach would merely be an inconvenience. The surgery, recovery and follow-up chemotherapy turned out to be just that – uncomfortable for a short time, but life-saving.
I was told that if I could go two years without a recurrence, I would have an 80-85% chance never having stomach cancer again. It’s been three years, and I’m still disease-free.
Life after stomach cancer treatment
A lot of people ask me what it’s like to live without a stomach. Like other stomach cancer survivors, I feel uncomfortable if I eat too much, and I sometimes suffer from acid reflux. Beyond that, I’ve learned to live a normal life.
Dealing with cancer and its treatment is very personal. As a volunteer with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one support program for patients and caregivers, I hope my experience can help others. But as I always tell the patients I speak with, what worked for me may not work for them. So, do your research and decide what’s best for you. Don’t feel pressured by other people’s stories or statistics.
For anyone going through cancer and an extreme surgery, find someone to talk to who’s been there. You don’t have to go through this alone.
To connect with other cancer patients and caregivers through myCancerConnection, please call 800-345-6324 or visit myCancerConnection online.
Find someone to talk to who’s been there.