This year I celebrated my 55th birthday. It's a birthday I looked forward to celebrating, since it also marked my 5 year anniversary as a stomach cancer survivor.
In July 2007, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Gastric Cancer. It was a signet ring cell type which I was told was an extremely aggressive, fast growing cancer. I was shocked. I was otherwise healthy and had no family history. My only risk factor was chronic inflammation from H. Pylori the year before. I quickly met with oncologists and surgeons and one month later had a partial gastrectomy at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Two thirds of my stomach was removed with clear margins, but lymph nodes were positive. They recommended a standard course of chemotherapy and radiation but gave me an option for an aggressive course since I was young, otherwise healthy, and my cancer was an aggressive type. I opted for the aggressive course. In October 2007, I started a regimen of Docetaxel, Cisplatin, and 5 FU (DCF). The Docetaxel & Cisplatin were administered in the "chemo room" at the hospital. I'd then go home hooked up to a 5 FU via pump for 5 days. I had a 3 week break before the next round of daily radiation and 5 FU via the pump for 5 weeks. After a one month break, the DCF was repeated in January and February 2008. The regimen wreaked havoc on my body. I was extremely sick, had mouth sores, lost my hair, was treated numerous times for dehydration, hospitalized 3 times for a dangerously low white blood cell count, and had a blood transfusion for a very low red blood cell count. Needless to say... there were days I wanted to STOP, but the love and support of my family and friends kept me going, not to mention I had 2 teenage boys I had to live for.
The caregivers in my life were amazing!!! My husband never left my side and wouldn't let me quit. My sons kept brave faces; they kept things light and made me laugh. My mom, brothers, cousins and friends from all over the country took turns coming to stay with us. They helped take care of the boys and the house, grocery shopped, cooked meals, did laundry, and took me to treatments. Especially during the 5 week radiation regimen when I had to go to Hopkins (an hour drive each way) every day - it was nearly impossible for my husband to take off work every day to do that. My wonderful friends and neighbors brought meals, drove the boys to their activities, and were there for moral support. My husband also had great support at work; many co-workers donated their sick time to him, so he could be home with me on the really rough days. Thanks to a wonderful medical team, support from family and friends, and the grace of God, we made it through and I've been cancer free ever since.
When I was first diagnosed, a very good friend told me not to waste my "nows" worrying about the "what-ifs" and that someday this experience may be something I will be grateful for having. Her words resonated with me. I lived in the present (probably for the first time in my life) and I am indeed grateful for the experience and especially grateful for the outcome. Not only did I learn to live in the present, which is such a gift in itself, but I learned to slow down and savor the moment. I discovered meditation and guided imagery which also helped combat some of the side effects of treatment. I discovered yoga and learned inner peace. I realized I was stronger than I thought I was, and how truly fortunate I was to have so many friends and family members who truly cared about me. Their supportive energy helped carry me through the rough times and continues to give me strength. My advice to patients in treatment is to accept help from friends and family, and do your best to relax your mind.
Now I want to give back. There is wonderful support out there for certain types of cancer and for general cancer information, but support specific to stomach cancer was very hard to find. I learned of "Debbie's Dream Foundation: Curing Stomach Cancer (DDF)" in October 2011 at a follow-up visit with my surgeon. He suggested I check it out if I still needed support of any kind, or if I felt I could get involved and help others. It was exactly what I'd been looking for. I am honored to be part of such a wonderful organization. It is filled with wonderful, caring, and compassionate people. Being part of DDF has given me the opportunity to provide support to stomach cancer patients through the Patient Resource Education Program (PREP) and to start a local chapter here in the Baltimore area helping to raise funds for research and to create awareness. I feel truly blessed to be a survivor and to work with such an amazing team of people.