“You have cancer.” These three words will forever resonate in my memory. I had been diagnosed with Stage IV advanced, incurable stomach cancer. It was April 2008, I was forty years old, the mother of three young children, married to a physician, and a practicing attorney with my own firm. Instead of having decades ahead of me, I only had weeks. I feared the worst – my three year old daughter would not remember me and my twins would be teenagers without a mother. Instead of giving in, I began the fight of my life. I immediately underwent very harsh chemotherapy treatments and spent years in bed, doctors’ office, and hospitals.
Soon after I started my chemo treatments, I began speaking with other stomach cancer patients. I refused to be a statistic and work needed to be done to raise awareness, fund research, and support patients, families and caregivers. I started activities to raise funds for stomach cancer research. It also became apparent that there was a great need for resources for stomach cancer patients, families, and caregivers all over the world. This was the beginning of Debbie’s Dream Foundation, the first organization dedicated to helping stomach cancer patients, raising money for research, and educating the public about stomach cancer.
Stomach cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men and fourth among women worldwide. Each year nearly 930,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with stomach cancer, and approximately 700,000 die of the disease. Approximately 22,000 Americans will be diagnosed with stomach cancer each year, and over 10,000 will die within a year. According to the American Cancer Society, the overall 5-year survival rate for people with stomach cancer in the United States is about 28%, and the 5-year survival rate for stage IV stomach cancer is 4%. Per cancer death, stomach cancer receives the least amount of federal funding of any cancer.
In parts of Asia where stomach cancer is highly prevalent, aggressive screening programs have had some success in detecting early cancers and improving the outcomes but in the United States there are no effective screening methods and no established programs for prevention or early detection. In addition, the symptoms of stomach cancer are not specific and are common to many gastric problems such as ulcers and gastritis. They include abdominal discomfort, indigestion, loss of appetite, occasional vomiting, and a feeling of fullness after eating small amounts of food. Up to 25% of patients will have a history of gastric ulcers.
Awareness of stomach cancer, its symptoms, and risk factors remains low despite the fact that it is one of the deadliest cancers and the number two cancer killer in the world. Physician and public awareness are critical for early diagnosis. If people are aware of the risk factors and symptoms, they can be diagnosed at an early stage, which dramatically increases the chance for a cure. Two of the most prevalent precursors to stomach and esophageal cancers are H. pylori and acid reflux. Bottom line – if you are having any type of gastrointestinal symptoms you must report them to your physician for evaluation.
How am I doing today? Most days are great except, to keep my cancer at bay, I still have Herceptin infusions every three weeks, every night I take the oral chemotherapy Tykerb, have regular doctor visits, and lots of scans and tests. I have a steadfast healthcare team and unwavering support from friends and family. They are with me in my journey to make a difference.
I am beating the odds. My pursuit is to make the cure for stomach cancer a reality – it’s my dream; my personal mission; my legacy. All people should have the right to early detection, intervention, and reliable treatment. Our health routine should include endoscopy exams and other screening techniques, increased resources, and proven treatments. No one should have to fight this disease alone or without appropriate options – we at Debbie’s Dream Foundation are making sure of it!
Debbie Zelman is a Stage IV stomach cancer survivor and founder of Debbie’s Dream Foundation which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about stomach cancer, advancing funding for research, and providing education and support internationally to patients, families, and caregivers. Debbie’s Dream Foundation seeks as its ultimate goal to make the cure for stomach cancer a reality. If you or someone you know is battling stomach cancer, you can find more information at http://debbiesdream.org or by calling their toll-free hotline at 855-475-1200.