Georgiana's story

October 27, 2023

Georgiana's story

Listen to your instinct and listen to your doctors. Ask all the questions you want to ask, until you understand what you are being told. Ask for more information. Ask for a second opinion if you feel like you need one.

To everyone reading this story, my name is Georgiana.

A few months into my 34th year, I was diagnosed with mixed gastric adenocarcinoma, or, more simply put, stomach cancer. And while the news dropped as a shock, in hindsight, knowing what I know now, the signs were all there. I had no idea it could all lead to this, especially at this age. I think this is one of the mistakes most people tend to make; they are under the impression that cancer is an older person’s disease.

The news was a shock. But I had been feeling something was not right for some time. I didn’t think it could be cancer. I had had stomach aches for more than a year. I was working too much, I was not sleeping right, I was a smoker, and I kept feeling that I wasn’t exactly happy with how things were going. So, I decided to cut back on the work and start investigating and taking better care of myself. It was more like a New Year’s resolution going into 2019.

I went to the gastroenterologist and finally decided on an endoscopy. I had gone before but was afraid to do it. Instead, I only had basic exams and blood work, which showed nothing wrong. So, the doctors put dyspepsia on my file. Well, this time, the blood work showed the presence of H. Pylori, and the endoscopy revealed a nasty ulcer. The doctor also took tissue samples, but the biopsy revealed nothing unusual. I received treatment for the bacteria and was due to repeat the endoscopy in two months. However, I started to feel a lot better. I went on a healthy eating regimen and had no more stomach aches. I thought I was on the right track.

When you feel better, you tend to leave it at that and don’t go back to the doctor’s. But something was telling me I had to do more out of curiosity. So, I went back. And boy, was I lucky I did. It was probably one of the best decisions that I have ever made. I dreaded doing another endoscopy. The experience was definitely not something to look forward to. The Helicobacter was not there anymore, but the ulcer was still there, looking just as nasty. The doctor’s face looked worried, but I just thought, “Oh, well, I will just have to take some other pills”. I put no more thought into it until three weeks later when the lab results came back from the biopsy.

I opened the email eagerly. I was still at work. I work in communications; I specialise in healthcare and pharma communication. So, I have some idea of medical terms. But when I saw adenocarcinoma on my laptop screen, I refused to process it. I thought it must mean something else. The gastroenterologist called me a few minutes after I read the email to ensure I understood the diagnosis and that I had to act quickly. She pulled some strings and got me into a full body CT scan the following day. This was on a Friday, so I had to wait for the results until the next week.

Learning I had cancer was unexpected, to say the least. And it put my brain into overdrive. All I knew was that I had to take action. I had to do everything I could. And I had to act fast. I couldn’t say I had an epiphany, and I completely changed how I see things or live life. But it definitely changed me. And I had the feeling from the beginning that this was not the end. I don’t know how to explain it, but all I knew was that I had to get rid of it and then it would be ok.

Two weeks passed between the diagnosis and my surgery.

I keep telling people who find out about this how lucky I am. And they look at me weirdly. And I don’t mean it like in a movie or a novel, that I discovered my true purpose after cancer or anything like that. No. What I mean is that I had all the pieces fit together perfectly.

First, I had the drive to do something about my symptoms. Or, better said, I had enough of wrong things happening to finally decide to do something right. Second, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a passionate GI, who sensed something was not right and decided to rush the lab results and to guide me through to the next steps.

After the CT scan, which, luckily(!) showed no metastases, I knew I had to tell my family. We had always been close, and I could not hide this from them, although that was my first instinct, not to burden them. Telling them was one of the toughest things I had to do. But, after those first phone calls, we became an operative cell, deciding on what and how happened next.

The lucky streak continued, as I also got the support of my friends and colleagues. Everybody rallied around me. They offered advice, they collected information, they put all their knowledge and connections to work and got me a second opinion on the biopsy, relevant information, advice or even joined me in doctor’s appointments. They also offered to provide financial support. For people who are not aware of how the Romanian medical system works, all of the above should not happen, but they are a privilege to have. Because, unfortunately, despite medical services are available freely upon state health insurance, there are so many things lacking or not working properly that it would take me a novel to only scratch the surface.

So, I must circle back to luck. On top of everything else, I was also lucky to have the money to pay for the surgery. I “interviewed” two oncologists and two surgeons before deciding on what to do. I went with my gut and chose the team that wanted to go as radical as possible, due to my age and the risk of aggressive cancer. Although this meant some drastic changes in my lifestyle would follow, my age was an advantage in this equation, as it would allow me a quicker and easier recovery. So, in a way, it was both a curse and a blessing getting cancer at an early age.

I underwent a full gastrectomy, spent 10 days in the hospital, and lost 10 kilograms.

The first time I was allowed to have real food instead of the liquids fed through my cannula, I cried. I was so hungry, and the hospital diet food felt like the most exquisite delicacy. After 2 bites, I was full, which made me cry again.

With time the pain, the bruises, the stitches, and all the rest went away. The change in eating habits lasted for a few months and tormented me because I always liked to eat. But, to continue on the lucky path, the post-op biopsy revealed that the tumor was taken out with clear margins and in the early stages. So, no chemotherapy or radiation was required. I am still testing my blood markers every three months; I still undergo CT scans and MRIs every six months now. But I have been cancer-free since April 2019 and I hope I continue this way.

What changed?

Well, the obvious thing is firstly, I have no stomach anymore. Nowadays, I can eat almost normal portions, although it takes me longer to do so.

The upside? I don’t have to worry about going up a size any time soon.

The downside? I have to constantly make sure I don’t lose weight, which, in my experience, is way more difficult to do than the other way around. I must also take B12 shots and various other vitamins and minerals that can no longer be absorbed without a stomach.

Also, I have been working from home since my surgery. A new reality that must be taken into consideration is that not only do your eating habits change, but your full digestive system is rerouted, which might mean some other changes along the way.

As far as I know, there is no gastric cancer in my family history. Because I have a sister, I also did further testing, to see if there was any genetic component to my cancer. The tests showed none of the genes linked to gastric cancer. But, with such a diagnosis, I am paying much more attention to similar symptoms. In fact, I pay much more attention to any type of symptom, and I drive my family and friends crazy to go check themselves out when something doesn’t feel right.

If you see me now and you don’t know, you probably can’t tell that this is my story. I look a bit skinnier, but nothing out of the ordinary. And I feel fine, most days. But I still struggle with what it all means. Now and in the future. I must admit I struggle with the concept of mortality more. And there are days when everything seems gray. But I also learned that I am more resilient than I could have imagined and that I can do more and deserve more, from myself and others. And even if I have moments when I forget, I am constantly reminded of my luck. Because I am still here. I am still me.

What I would like people to get from this story is to listen to their bodies. And not wait when they feel something is not right. As cliché as it may be, it is way better to be safe than sorry.

To someone newly diagnosed with gastric cancer, I would say to try and find the best solution for yourself. If you are not sure about it, find people who have gone through it and ask for advice or guidance. If available, seek a patient navigator to support you, so that you can focus on taking the best care of yourself.

What I learned from my experience is that, while my family was there for me every step of the way, I had to make the decision, and put in the work to get better and recover. And I think it’s important to know and accept that.  Lucky or not, cancer is overwhelming. You need all the help you can get, and you must not be ashamed to ask for it.

Listen to your instinct and listen to your doctors. Ask all the questions you want to ask, until you understand what you are being told. Ask for more information. Ask for a second opinion if you feel like you need one.

To the families of someone newly diagnosed with gastric cancer, I would like say, try and be there for your loved one, but try not to put additional pressure. Don’t be overbearing, don’t rush or push them. They are struggling not only with what they are personally going through, but also with what this means for the rest of their world. Be there as much as you can but respect their needs and wishes. And don’t go telling them “everything will be ok”, it might not work, or frustrate them more.

There is no recipe, and people should not expect one. The best thing anyone can do is find their own way, what works best for them.

Gastric cancer is usually discovered in late stages. Because there are usually no symptoms or because we tend to dismiss them if there are. Because the investigations are unpleasant or uncomfortable. Because we are still under the impression that cancer can only happen to old people, despite the evidence. Because we don’t know enough about it. But there should be more than awareness initiatives, there should also be education and screening programs, at least considered, if not implemented in the near future.

While some are lucky to catch it early and survive it, there are many exceptional people who don’t. And life should be more than just survival.

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