August 10, 2018
This was designed by my amazing friend Jonathan Sanchez, it was a tattoo design he created for Ailish, until she was advised against getting any tattoos while undergoing treatment.
November is Stomach Cancer Awareness Month – Color is Periwinkle
As stated in a previous post, Ailish was diagnosed in February 2016 with stage 4 stomach cancer. We cannot definitively pin point when the stomach cancer started with my sister, but now that I know what to look for, I have an idea of when it could have begun. It was spring of 2012, it came without warning and suddenly, every time Ailish ate, she would get this pressure and pain in her upper abdomen just under her diaphragm area. After she would eat, she would double over in pain, and while it didn’t last long, it was severe. This went on for a few months and then seemed to just disappear. I had told her to go to the doctor, but she just brushed it off and thought nothing of it, especially since it went away.
About a year later, November 2013, the pain came back after she would eat, and this time I forced her to go to the doctor. I actually called in sick that day to work, (she was working from home that day), and I drove her to the doctor. The doctor said they thought it was either kidney stones or her gall bladder. We went to get an ultra sound done and they didn’t find anything. Again, this pain went away on its own after only a few months. Everything seemed ok, no symptoms or issues until about a year before her diagnosis. In 2015, she started getting really bad heartburn at night, almost every night. She started taking Tums and other over the counter antacids to try help with this. She would also wake up most nights with this weird salivating thing. She described it like, when you know you are going to puke, and your mouth salivates a lot, but she would never actually vomit.
Around September 2015, I noticed that after eating a small amount of food (like 5 or 6 small bites at most), she would feel extremely full, like she ate a 5-course dinner. Then towards the end of that year, a few times, she got sick and vomited after eating just those small amounts of food. I kept telling her to go to the doctor, and it wasn’t until February 2016, when she found out she was getting laid off from her job, that she made the appointment. Ailish didn’t like to complain, and always tried to “tough it out”.
During her appointment, Ailish described her symptoms to her doctor; the persistent heart burn, the excessive salivating, the getting full after eating small amounts of food, the throwing up of food, and told her of all the antacids she had been trying but weren’t working. Her doctor knowing that she was about to lose her insurance at the end of the month, didn’t want to mess around and made her an appointment with a gastrointestinal doctor. Her doctor also told Ailish that she had already taken all the over the counter meds she would suggest, and since none of them were working, a visit to a GI doc would be a good idea. Both doctors initially thought it could be her gall bladder, just like the previous doctors a few years ago. I remember that day vividly sitting in the GI doctor’s office with her. He wasn’t sure what was wrong, although he didn’t think it was anything serious, but wanted to schedule an endoscopy just to be sure. He couldn’t have been more wrong. I remember after that appointment Ailish asked me, “What if it’s stomach cancer?” (Anytime anything was wrong with us, we used to always say, what if it’s cancer? What if it’s blood clots? What if it’s, whatever crazy disease we were thinking of, almost half joking, never thinking that it would ever be anything that serious.) I was like, “No way, worst case scenario, it’s probably an ulcer, you have been stressed out a lot lately, no way is it cancer. Don’t even think that!!” Boy, did I have to eat those fucking words. Little did I know that 2.5 years later, blood clots from her cancer would be what ultimately took her from me. I never in a million years would have thought stomach cancer, but at that time, I didn’t know what symptoms to look for, or what tests we should have been asking for. Had I known back in 2012 or 2013, could she have been diagnosed at a much earlier stage? Could she have beaten this? I am not playing the coulda, woulda, shoulda game with myself, because I didn’t know then, what I know now. I couldn’t save my sister, but maybe sharing this information can help save someone else.
I am not a doctor, a nurse, nor a healthcare professional. I am simply a former caretaker who had to learn all this shit, battling this hell called cancer, a long side my sister. Most stomach cancer is discovered and diagnosed at stage 4 because so many of the symptoms can be mistaken for other non-cancerous or less life-threatening gastrointestinal issues. Here are some of the most common symptoms to look for:
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss (without trying to actively lose weight)
- Abdominal pain or vague discomfort above the navel
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or bloating after meals
- Feeling full after eating small amounts of food
- Heartburn or indigestion
- Blood in vomit or stool
- Swelling or fluid buildup in abdomen
- Weakness or fatigue
- Low red blood cell count
As you can see, a lot of these symptoms can be misconstrued as so many other things, but if symptoms persist and don’t go away, make sure and go see your doctor. You need to be your own advocate, keep pushing if you feel like you aren’t getting better. Ask for tests like endoscopies if other methods of treatment are not working to relieve your symptoms. These are all things I wish I had known to look for or ask about back in 2012. Since diagnosis, I learned to advocate for my sister, ask a million questions to her doctors, to educate myself on this disease, treatment options, side effects, and how to provide the best care for her.
While cancer does not discriminate, and one can lead the healthiest of lives and still get cancer, here is also a list of risk factors that can cause stomach cancer:
- A diet high in salty, pickled, and smoked foods
- A diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Family history of stomach cancer
- Genetics, hereditary factors
- Helicobacter pylori infection
- Long-term stomach inflammation
- Pernicious anemia
- Smoking and heavy alcohol use
- Stomach polyps
- Environmental factors
Here are some great websites where I found this information and to learn more on stomach cancer:
It is a really good idea to get genetic testing done if someone in your family is diagnosed with stomach cancer. Since Ailish was diagnosed so young with stomach cancer (average age is 68) and because we were adopted and do not know our family medical history, she and I both got genetic testing done. While we do not have a known genetic mutation that causes stomach cancer, we do have a variant in our genetic makeup that researchers and doctors do not know yet, if it is a precursor to stomach cancer. There is a lot of new genetic research being done every year and who knows, maybe 5 years down the line, they find that specific variant does not have a propensity to cause stomach cancer. I guess we will wait and see. In the meantime, due to lack of family history, and uncertainty about this variant, they are treating me as if I do have a genetic inclination towards stomach cancer, and I get tests done every year. I get a yearly endoscopy, blood work, and 24-hour urine collection test. I also have an MRI every 2 years. Last year, I had some bad heart burn for about 4 weeks, which I usually never get, so I told my GI doctor, and she scheduled me for another endoscopy just to make sure they didn’t miss anything. She was well aware of my sister’s diagnosis and didn’t want to take any chances. I am so lucky my doctors are very proactive about this. I just had my yearly tests done in July, and so far, so good.
I know that raising awareness about stomach cancer was very important to my sister and something she really wanted to do. I will try and do my best to share as much as I can about our experiences, spread awareness, and help others along the way. In the words of my sister, FUCK CANCER!!!!
This picture was taken early 2017, right in the middle of her fight!!!