For millions of Americans, the words “you have cancer” mark the beginning of an emotional, confusing and highly uncertain journey.
When our physicians informed us that the odds of developing hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (HDGC) – a rare, but aggressive form of stomach cancer – were greater than 85 percent, we had a decision to make: roll the dice with our genetic codes or have our stomachs removed preemptively to minimize the risk of developing this type of cancer. We chose the latter and haven’t looked back since.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 22,000 cases of stomach cancer will be diagnosed in 2014, with nearly 40 percent of those affecting women. Approximately, 11,000 people will die from it. Across the globe, it is the 2nd leading cause of cancer mortality.
When considering how far we’ve come in combatting the disease – it was the leading cause of death related to cancer until the early 20th century – the progression of research and treatment options point to a future in which we are helping patients live long, productive lives. Improvements in diet and food storage, combined with greater patient awareness, education and early detection, are all contributing to the downward trend in new diagnoses.
However, in an era of increased cost containment and prioritization, we are reminded that much remains to be done. Federal funding remains low. Also, given that the five-year survival rate for affected patients is just under 25 percent, building on recent achievements and allocating the right resources to future research in the U.S. and worldwide will be critical to saving and extending lives.
In the biopharmaceutical sector, the good news is that there are 24 new medicines in development for stomach cancer.
To continue to battle this disease, the following steps must also serve as a blueprint:
First, identifying at-risk families, especially those prone to developing HDGC, will help many patients get in front of a potential diagnosis and drive greater prevention overall. This requires a combination of education of health care professionals and increased availability of genetic counseling opportunities, especially in communities that might be at greater risk. Making genetic cancer a conversational topic won’t be an easy task, but equipping those on the front lines with the necessary information is a critical first step.
Second, we must bring together industry, government and academia to compare notes on needs and progress. While large-scale public and private sector initiatives are critically-important, nonprofit individual grant programs that lead to measurable results help fill the void in a field that doesn’t have the same resources as do many other types of cancer. We must continue to encourage research projects that help advance our understanding of stomach cancer and aid in prevention, diagnosis and treatment efforts.
Finally, eliminating barriers that prevent patients from accessing the latest innovative treatments will save and extend lives. This includes a commitment among insurance providers to promote transparency and affordability in their health plans, as well as a recognition by federal and state policymakers that we will not win the war on stomach cancer if patients can’t gain access to the needed treatments or aren’t provided the information necessary to understanding their options. In this regard, knowledge is and always will be power.
The 20th Century poet Robert Frost once said, “two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
For both of us, the decision to have our stomach removed – and the ability to access high-quality care in doing so – likely meant the difference between living our lives to the fullest or dying at a young age.
Winning the war against stomach cancer won’t be easy, but it’s achievable, especially if we work together.
We are living proof.
Sharon Brigner is deputy vice president at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Beth Lambert is a high school English teacher in Massachusetts and an official at No Stomach For Cancer.