On Monday night, the renowned country music artist Toby Keith passed away at the age of 62 after a prolonged battle with stomach cancer, which had persisted for over two years since his initial diagnosis.
In the autumn of 2021, Keith openly shared details about his health, revealing that he had undergone an extensive treatment regimen involving chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery by June 2022. During an interview with The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City last June, he disclosed that his tumor had shrunk by a third, actively continuing his treatment with a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy to enhance his immune system’s ability to combat cancer cells.
The news of Keith’s passing has prompted healthcare professionals to underscore the importance of recognizing symptoms associated with stomach cancer. These symptoms encompass heartburn, acid reflux, anemia, nausea, ulcers, post-meal discomfort, unexplained weight loss, or a feeling of fullness after consuming small amounts.
Dr. Fabian Johnston, the division chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, emphasized that seemingly innocuous symptoms like acid reflux should not be dismissed by both healthcare providers and patients, as such oversight can lead to delayed diagnoses. Often, by the time symptoms become noticeable, the disease has already progressed significantly.
Stomach cancer typically affects individuals around the age of 68, with men facing a slightly higher risk. According to estimates from the American Cancer Society, nearly 27,000 new cases of stomach cancer will be diagnosed this year, constituting around 1.5% of new cancer cases in the U.S. annually.
While overall rates of stomach cancer diagnoses have experienced a modest decline in the past decade, there has been a notable uptick in cases among adults under 50. The reasons behind this trend remain unclear. Dr. Ben Schlechter, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, speculates that contemporary lifestyle factors, dietary habits, or a combination of various elements may contribute to the increase in stomach cancer among younger individuals. Additionally, he highlights that traditional risk factors like alcohol and tobacco, once significant contributors, are now associated with a minority of cases, possibly due to reduced tobacco use.
Instead, numerous new cases arise in individuals with chronic acid reflux or infections involving the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, known to cause stomach inflammation. However, scientists have yet to determine why some individuals with these conditions develop stomach cancer while the majority do not.
For many patients, the onset of stomach cancer is currently attributed to “bad luck,” according to Dr. Ben Schlechter. While associations with H. pylori infection or a history of heartburn or reflux may exist, clarity on causation is often lacking.
Schlechter noted that stomach cancer is generally aggressive compared to other cancers. Although it doesn’t necessarily imply imminent death, the available tools for curing it are limited. While progress has been made compared to 15 years ago, the success rates are not on par with cancers like breast cancer, where a significant majority of individuals can be cured through surgery and chemotherapy.
In the United States, up to 95% of stomach cancers are adenocarcinomas, originating in the innermost lining of the stomach and potentially spreading to the stomach wall, the body of the stomach, or the lymph nodes.
Patients with localized cancer often undergo chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these treatments, according to Dr. Rutika Mehta, a medical oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. In more advanced cases, achieving a complete cure remains a challenge, but these treatments may help extend lives.
Advancements in matching patients with targeted treatments based on specific proteins associated with stomach cancers are underway. For example, some stomach cancers express the HER2 gene, also linked to breast cancer. Drugs effective in HER2 breast cancer have shown promise in HER2 gastric cancer, providing a substantial benefit to individuals with stomach cancer.
While outcomes for stomach cancer are generally considered poor, Schlechter emphasized that they have significantly improved over time.