When her doctor’s nurse called her and said, “You need to come in. Bring someone with you,” Tracy* felt certain the endoscopic test results weren’t going to be good news.
* Her real name, used with permission.
Several months of aggravating heartburn, losing two pounds a week, and throwing up water led Tracy to have an endoscopy to find out what was causing her unusual symptoms.
A week later when the nurse called, she went in to hear the results. “You have suspicious cell changes. You may have stomach cancer,” her doctor said.
The results of the ultrasound endoscopy she had five days later led to more concerns. “I also see at least two enlarged lymph nodes,” her doctor shared.
CT scans, PET scans, and numerous assessments by specialists during a three day stay in the hospital confirmed her doctor’s original speculation. He said, “You have stomach cancer, but we are not sure what stage it is. At least stage two. This type of cancer is rare and aggressive. We will know more when we get the results back from the scans.”
Tracy remembers not being able to grasp the fact she had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. Her sister, Aimee, started a Caring Bridge web site, and Tracy shared messages as often as she could.
She posted this on January 26, 2013: “As of this moment, I feel like I have two purposes: 1) I’m going through this to bring glory to God. It’s all about Him!! 2) To show my precious three children what it’s like to walk to hell and back with a strong faith, and to show them they are strong!”
Within two weeks, the scans revealed the cancer was not a tumor, but a thickening of the lining of the top of the stomach.
The doctor referred her to an oncologist. Two weeks later, she began chemotherapy as the oncologist felt they could not move fast enough.
The oncologist wanted more information, so he sent her to a surgical abdominal gastro-oncologist who performed a diagnostic staging laparoscopy. He looked at the peritoneal lining of her stomach. (This lining holds all of the abdominal organs in place.) The cancer showed up as pimples, which was only visible through this testing.
“You’re covered up in the pimples, which means it’s stage four. You have three to six months to live,” the oncologist shared with Tracy and her family.
On her Caring Bridge site, Tracy posted: “Finding out I have stage 4 gastric adenocarcinoma was not what I expected. Quite scary actually. I will fight this with all my might and hopefully bring glory to God along the way.”
Tracy started a seven-month rotation of “throwing the kitchen sink at it” chemotherapy treatments.
Within three weeks, she began losing her hair. She opted for a wig, which she called Mavis.
“I had a love/hate relationship with Mavis. My bald head did not like her AT ALL!” Tracy shared on Caring Bridge. “I wanted to kick it to the curb.”
Within a month, she quit wearing Mavis and decided, “Bald is beautiful!”
In February, Tracy’s eight-year-old daughter Leah made her a poster to remind her of who was fighting stomach cancer with her: Nothing is impossible with God!
During those seven months, Tracy was in the hospital for three to seven days at a time, because the side effects of the nausea, vomiting, and exhaustion were so debilitating.
A much needed spring break trip with her kids gave Tracy time to research her type of cancer and her options. On her Caring Bridge site she posted, “I’m going to look into a surgical procedure called HIPEC. It’s supposed to be the mother of all surgeries, but it could increase my survival rate from 4% to 27%. So . . . the torment of believing I’m not a 96% statistic and the reality I just may be.”
In April, Tracy and her family celebrated the news there had been a reduction in her stomach cancer and a 50% reduction in her two positive lymph nodes.
In June of 2013, Tracy went to MD Anderson to get a second opinion from an expert on stomach cancer. “I did not hear the kind of news I wanted to hear today. There is no cure for stage 4 stomach cancer, and I will never be in remission or cured,” Tracy shared on her Caring Bridge site after her appointment.
“Lots of info for me to process! Just take it one day at a time, make that the best day I possibly can, remembering God will provide me with what I need,” she wrote.
She fell into a deep depression, unable to get out of bed. Over the next few months, she continued the last few chemo treatments.
Then in October, after eleven rounds of chemo, her surgeon performed another diagnostic staging laparoscopy and shared he could not see any of the cancer!
Tracy’s sister, Aimee – lovingly referred to as the BOSS, posted this on her Caring Bridge site: “Her doctor said she had a 1% chance of being alive today. She’s nine months following her stage 4 stomach cancer diagnosis. Our God is BIGGER than any statistic!”
After getting the approval from doctors at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Tracy made a courageous and prayerful decision to have her stomach completely removed, as well as undergoing the HIPEC (Hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy) procedure. Her surgery was scheduled for December 13, 2013 with the hopes of completely eradicating the cancer.
This twelve hour surgical procedure would include a total gastrectomy (entire stomach removed), attaching her esophagus to her small intestine, removing the 25+ lymph nodes, and the HIPEC procedure (a heated chemo wash to her entire abdominal cavity).
In her Caring Bridge notes, Tracy writes, “I will be Emory’s FIRST patient ever to have both a total gastrectomy and HIPEC. History making here. I pray I give hope to others following me.”
The surgery went well, and her doctor proclaimed, “She is cancer free!” But the pain was unbearable, and Tracy kept hitting the button to dispense pain medicine, to the point she overdosed and landed in the ICU. The doctors took her off the pain meds. She admits she wasn’t in a good mental state, even thinking, “This is hell on earth. I’m suffering. I just want to go be with Jesus.”
After a week of recovering at the hospital, the chief of surgery at Emory said, “I’m releasing you a week early, because of your (stubborn) determination and your incredible support team.”
During her recovery at home, she shared her frustrations on her Caring Bridge site. She wrote,”I am in pain. I was in NO pain last year. Every bite of food I eat hurts. Except hot tea and Jello. And Gatorade. I was told last week the pain is from my hot chemo wash. My good friend P said, ‘They basically fried your insides, stuffed your intestines back in, closed you up, and said good luck!’ All that said, I know there are better days ahead.”
In July of 2014 (six months post surgery), an endoscopy and CAT scan revealed a pea size recurrence.
In August, she began seven weeks of radiation and small doses of chemo. She quickly began losing weight – 5 pounds the first week, 3 pounds the second week, and 3 more pounds the third week.
In total, Tracy lost a total of 80 pounds during her months of recovery from the surgery.
She was frustrated with the recurrence and ready to quit radiation until her radiation oncologist said, “This is a curative radiation. We’re not just buying you time.”
In December of 2014 on her one year surgery anniversary, her oncologist (affectionately called Uncle Ken) sent Tracy this email:
“Happy one year surgery anniversary. You proved me wrong, and you have defied the odds. You are still here fighting and more importantly living.”
November is National Stomach Cancer Awareness Month, and Tracy is sharing a short Facebook post each day to make people aware of what she went through and that she’s an almost three year survivor!
Can’t Stomach Cancer, a 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, gave Tracy the info and support she needed during a very difficult time in her life.
When I asked Tracy to share what she learned from her struggles, she said, “I didn’t know I had determination. I didn’t know I had such depths of determination. This struggle caused my faith to go deeper. I learned I am not alone.”
UPDATE: After bravely fighting her third recurrence of stomach cancer, Tracy passed away on September 30, 2017.
A close friend of hers, Catherine Dotson, discussed how Tracy stayed true to the two purposes she shared on her CaringBridge site on the day of her diagnosis: 1) I’m going through this to bring glory to God. It’s all about Him!! 2) To show my precious three children what it’s like to walk to hell and back with a strong faith, and to show them they are strong!”
How you loved others and fought so courageously will continue to be an inspiration to so many. Until we meet again, Tracy!