AUSTIN, Texas - Country music star Toby Keith died from stomach cancer on Monday at the age of 62. He was diagnosed with the illness in late 2021 and had undergone treatments including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
Rebecca Thomas: According to the American Cancer Society, stomach cancer accounts for 1.5% of all new cancer cases diagnosed each year in the U.S., so this is fairly rare. What causes it? What are some of the risk factors?
Dr. Rebecca Wiatrek: Well, the cause of gastric cancer, like most cancers, isn't just one thing. It's multiple. There are several things that can cause your stomach to be inflamed, like reflux or an infection or other things that can put you at risk. But really, most gastric cancer and what you can do to help prevent it is to not ignore symptoms that are causing the gene.
Rebecca Thomas: Let's talk about what some of those symptoms are when it comes to gastric or stomach cancer.
Dr. Rebecca Wiatrek: So unfortunately, the symptoms with gastric cancer, which makes it so tricky to diagnose, are that they mimic a lot of things. A lot of the population has GI upset after eating a lot of food or feeling poorly after eating spicy foods or having nausea or vomiting intermittently. I think what happens is when you see that happening more often, and it's a change, or you start to lose weight, and you're doing the same thing that you've been doing for a long time, that's something to be alarmed with. So it's something you don't want to ignore if it's changing most of the time. If you have GI upset or changes in your GI system, that's going to be other causes. Looking at how rare this is, but if it persists, you definitely don't want to ignore it, and you want to talk to your doctor about it.
Rebecca Thomas: Doctor, what type of screenings or tests are available? How does one come to be diagnosed with stomach cancer?
Dr. Rebecca Wiatrek: You know, interestingly, there isn't a great screening for gastric cancer. And I think that's why we see patients like Toby Keith are diagnosed a little bit later on in the disease. There's not a great way to find it early. Like colon cancer and breast cancer, we can find that early because there are polyps or calcium you see on a mammogram or on colonoscopy that allows you to intervene early. With gastric cancer, we don't do scopes for it because the incidence of the cancer is so low that we would have to do a scope for everybody, which has risk, to actually find a few cancers. This is why it's important to not ignore symptoms and have you be the person that gets that endoscopy or that scope down, so they can see your stomach.
Rebecca Thomas: What is the typical prognosis for stomach cancer?
Dr. Rebecca Wiatrek: We've made a little bit of improvement in prognosis with gastric cancer with improvement in our chemotherapies. But unfortunately, the prognosis is not great. And you know, once it's gone to your lymph nodes, your five-year survival goes down pretty substantially. And so, you know, the course that, unfortunately, Toby Keith had is pretty common for our gastric cancer patients.
Rebecca Thomas: Finally, let's talk about prevention. What can we do to lower the risk of getting stomach cancer?
Dr. Rebecca Wiatrek: I get this question asked by my patients a lot. I mean, for all cancers. And I think the answer I give is usually the same number one, which we talked about before. Don't ignore new symptoms. Don't just say, hey, yeah, I'm finally losing weight. Go get a workup by your doctor. The other thing you can do is live a healthy lifestyle. I mean, that helps prevent heart disease, liver disease, pretty much all the diseases that will get you as you age. You want to exercise, eat your fruits and vegetables. Don't smoke. Smoking is one of the worst things you can do to your body, but it is also associated with so many cancers, including the stomach.
Rebecca Thomas: Okay. Dr. Rebecca Wiatrek with Texas Oncology. Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us tonight.
Dr. Rebecca Wiatrek: My pleasure.