“Here’s How I Knew I Had Stomach Cancer”: One Patient’s Story Illustrates the Value of a Second Opinion

Updated: Jun. 09, 2024

Stomach cancer symptoms "are vague," says one expert doctor. An adoring grandfather shares his quest for answers when abdominal sensations persisted: "Listen to your body," he says.

Stomach cancer makes up approximately 1.5% of all new cancer cases each year in the United States, a figure that might seem small but carries a significant impact. According to the American Cancer Society, we’re looking at an estimated 26,890 new cases and about 10,880 deaths from stomach cancer in 2024 alone.

While these numbers are serious, they also reflect a positive trend: There’s been a steady decline in stomach cancer rates by about 1.5% annually over the past decade. The recent news of country music legend Toby Keith’s courageous fight against stomach cancer has also brought this condition back into the spotlight, reminding us of its presence and impact.

Sharona Ross, MD, FACS, a board-certified surgeon specializing in advanced robotic foregut and HPB (Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary) surgery at AdventHealth Tampa, describes the symptoms of stomach cancer with a note of caution, saying, “Unfortunately, they are vague.” This ambiguity means they can often be confused with less severe health issues.

Stomach cancer symptoms to watch out for can include:

  • Indigestion

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Heartburn

  • Bloating

  • Loss of appetite

More alarming signs, such as vomiting blood, tarry stools, and sudden weight loss, typically manifest at more advanced stages. Dr. Ross advises prompt medical consultation and an endoscopy for those experiencing any concerning symptoms or at increased risk.

Risk factors for stomach cancer range from a family history of the disease and specific genetic predispositions to lifestyle choices like consuming salty and smoked foods, insufficient fruits and vegetables, and smoking. Chronic heartburn and infections with Helicobacter pylori (often referred to as H. pylori) bacteria are significant risk enhancers.

Recognizing symptoms and risk factors is essential, yet it’s the personal narratives of individuals who have directly confronted stomach cancer that genuinely highlight the importance of early detection and proactive health management. Robert, a 60-year-old stomach cancer survivor in Land O’ Lakes, FL, was a surgery patient of Dr. Ross and her team who shares his story here.

Continue reading for what Robert says was a lesson on the importance of heeding your body’s signals and seeking medical advice when something feels wrong.

How I knew I had stomach cancer

By Robert Carpenter, as told to Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO

It all started in an unexpected way, and little did I know, I’d have to be incredibly persistent to find the answers I needed.

In early April 2021, both my wife and I tested positive for COVID-19. We went through our quarantine period without much fuss, thinking we’d ride it out and be fine. But then, mid-April rolled around, and I started experiencing severe stomach pain—a familiar foe from my past. Back in 2017, I had been diagnosed with ulcers, which I managed to overcome by stopping use of over-the-counter NSAID pain relievers. This time, however, I’d soon learn the pain was hinting at something far more sinister.

Concerned, I reached out to my primary care doctor, who recommended an endoscopy along with a colonoscopy. The colonoscopy didn’t reveal anything alarming, but the endoscopy revealed that I had gastroparesis. Gastroparesis is a condition where the stomach muscles don’t contract properly to break down food. This was perplexing since I had completed all the necessary colon and endoscopy prep (and we all know how delightful that is), yet liquid and undigested food remained in my stomach.

Despite the diagnosis and being put on a liquid diet, my symptoms—vomiting, diarrhea, and rapid weight loss—only worsened. I was so weak that calling emergency services seemed like the only option, but when they arrived, they found my vitals were stable. As busy as hospital emergency departments were in dealing with COVID, the EMT team suggested I might just be sent home if they took me to the hospital. I’ll just tough it out, I remember thinking.

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Being diagnosed with stomach cancer

By mid-May, I couldn’t bear the pain any longer and went to the emergency room (ER). A CT scan revealed a mass in my duodenum, which is the initial section of the small intestine where food travels after it’s first been processed by the stomach. This mass was the first clue of the possibility of cancer. Despite elevated calcium levels in my blood work, I was discharged with instructions to follow up with my doctors for further action.

The pain, however, did not subside, leading me to seek help at another hospital’s ER shortly after. This time, the medical team admitted me to the hospital for in-depth exploration. A second endoscopy was done, this time taking biopsies. Those biopsies brought the grim clarity of my situation to light: I was facing stage 3 stomach cancer.

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My treatment after I knew I had stomach cancer

On June 1, 2021, Dr. Ross and her team performed robotic surgery to excise the stomach cancer. The operation was a success, and I was able to leave the hospital after just five days. (To give you an idea of my recovery, I enjoyed a chicken nugget before my first checkup following surgery!)

The subsequent five months after I knew I had stomach cancer were filled with chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I handled the chemotherapy quite well, maintaining my activity level and involvement throughout, something I count myself lucky for.

Of course, it wasn’t without its challenges, including fatigue, a bit of “chemo brain,” and a substantial weight loss of nearly 35 pounds—which was significant for me. I had to learn to eat even when I wasn’t feeling hungry, and hunger signals are hit-or-miss even to this day. Thankfully, once the treatments were over, I managed to put the weight back on, plus a little extra.

Now, I am profoundly grateful to be two years cancer-free.

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This is what kept me going

I’ve always been a very lighthearted person—a jokester to some degree—so I always try to keep a positive attitude. I don’t take illnesses lying down…and I certainly didn’t with this, even though I knew it was very serious.

What really fueled my resilience through the diagnosis and continues to inspire me after overcoming stomach cancer is my dedication to my wife and our shared responsibility of raising two of our grandchildren. Persisting in my daily duties, fully conscious of the challenges that lay before me, instilled a profound sense of purpose. It was never about merely watching the days go by; instead, it was about remaining engaged, being there for the kids, and confronting the obstacles that came our way.

Always advocate for yourself

Dr. Ross shared with me that the cancer I was battling was particularly aggressive. Without being persistent and seeking further assistance, my diagnosis might have come too late, as the disease was already in an advanced stage.

As a survivor of stomach cancer, today I can say: Trust your instincts and listen to your body. If you ever feel that your concerns are being dismissed or minimized, don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion. This approach led me to an exceptional team of caregivers who offered not just their medical expertise, but genuine compassion and support during one of the most challenging periods of my life.

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