The challenges of a gastrectomy and how it helped me win my battle with stomach cancer

In July 2007, just two months after my 50th birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 2 stomach cancer–a very aggressive, fast-growing, signet ring cell type. Shocked and frightened, I quickly made appointments with surgeons and oncologists.

As anyone having a cancer diagnosis knows, your initial reaction is “cut it out as soon as possible!” But not everyone is a surgical candidate. I met with the doctors, got second opinions and the consensus was to perform a gastrectomy–hopefully a partial because the cancer appeared to be contained to a localized area. If there was any evidence the cancer had spread, surgery would be followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Now I had to decide which surgeon was going to perform this very scary surgery. As much as I wanted it “out,” I was scared to death about having my stomach removed. What would eating be like? What kind of complications could arise? In the face of a cancer diagnosis though, this really wasn’t elective surgery, and I would have to deal with any after effects of the surgery. The more pressing issue was who was going to perform this surgery. Both surgeons were equally skilled and came highly recommended, but the one who could do it sooner, didn’t give me the “warm fuzzies.” I decided to go with my gut. I’m a person who needs the “warm fuzzies,” so my instincts were that I would have a better outcome if I felt cared for emotionally as well as physically.

It seemed like an eternity, but just one month after diagnosis, I had my surgery. The surgeon was able to perform a partial gastrectomy, removing two-thirds of my stomach with clear margins. Thankfully, there was no evidence of spread to any other organs, but 3 of 11 lymph nodes were positive, so chemotherapy and radiation would still be necessary after I recovered.

After a five-day hospital stay, I went home to recover and learned to eat a whole new way. Rather than three large meals, I ate six small meals with no liquids at meal time. At first the meals were very small, maybe just a few bites at a time. The key was to listen to my body–eat when I was hungry and more importantly, stop when I was full.

Chewing well and eating slowly were also key to avoiding any discomfort or nausea. The nutritionist I met with recommended starting out with bland, easy-to-digest foods and then slowly introduced other foods to see what I could tolerate. Trust me, you quickly find out what you can’t tolerate. Everyone’s different, but for me it was sweets, fried foods and creamy, rich foods. If I had any of those, if I ate too fast, or if I ate too much, I became extremely nauseous. I would begin to sweat, my heart would race, and inevitably, I’d vomit. Not fun, but you learn by trial and error.

One of the biggest challenges though, was getting adequate nutrition during chemotherapy and radiation. The treatments themselves made me very nauseous and took away my appetite. Eating became an even bigger challenge since just about any food I ate would not stay down. It was a very trying time, to say the least. Over the course of six months, I lost 60 pounds, and often felt as though I’d never be “normal” again. But the human body has amazing healing powers. Once my treatments ended in February 2008, I slowly, but surely, got my appetite back, kept foods down, gained my strength back and began to heal.

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