Take a minute to imagine your favorite food. Is it salty? Indulgent and sweet? Greasy and covered in cheese?
Now, think about what your life would be like without being able to eat that meal “normally” ever again.
It’s hard to stomach the thought. But for the estimated 26,000 people who will be diagnosed with stomach cancer this year, it could be their only chance at survival.
A gastrectomy is the removal of the stomach, and according to The American Cancer Society, it’s often part of the treatment for stomach cancer. A partial gastrectomy is when only a portion of the stomach is taken out, as opposed to a total gastrectomy, where the entire stomach is removed.
How can you survive without a stomach?
Surprisingly enough, you can eat most foods without a stomach.
During the partial gastrectomy, the surgeon will remove the lower half of the stomach and close off the duodenum (the first part of your small intestine that receives partially digested food from your stomach). Then, the remaining part of your stomach will be connected to your bowel.
In a complete gastrectomy, the whole stomach is removed, and the small intestine is attached to the esophagus (which usually connects your throat to your stomach), allowing food to pass through.
Recovery from a gastrectomy can take a long time: you’ll be in the hospital for seven to 10 days after the procedure, and it could take weeks or months for your stomach and small intestine to stretch, allowing you to consume full meals. Your body needs a well-balanced diet to heal itself and absorb minerals and nutrients, but this needs to be done with caution.
Some gastrectomy patients do just fine absorbing nutrients and eating whatever they want, but others experience what’s known as “dumping syndrome.” Without a stomach, you might only be able to eat small portions of high-protein and high-calorie foods, and very little sugar (it passes through the intestines way too quickly and can cause serious side effects, often known as dumping).
According to the Mayo Clinic, dumping syndrome is also called rapid gastric emptying and occurs when food, especially treats high in sugar, moves through your body too quickly. In most people with dumping syndrome, the symptoms (such as nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and dizziness) happen within minutes or hours after eating.
As you can probably imagine, having your stomach removed can make it difficult to maintain your weight. For Heather Huus, who told her preventative total gastrectomy story to SELF.com, it only took six months after surgery to drop about 125 pounds and go from a size 24 to a size 4. Without a stomach, Huus doesn’t get hungry and has to eat every two to three hours to prevent extreme fatigue and shakiness.
“When you have no hunger, ever, there are no signals that make you realize you need to eat,” Huus told SELF.com.
While it might take a year or two to find the new “normal” that works for your new body, it beats the alternative: a shockingly low stomach cancer survival rate of 31 percent.
What are the signs and symptoms of stomach cancer?
The American Cancer Society says that early-stage stomach cancer rarely causes symptoms, which makes it difficult to detect (only one in five stomach cancers in the United States is found at an early stage). But when symptoms do appear, they usually show up as:
- Stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting (with or without blood)
- Blood in the stool
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme fatigue
- Indigestion or heartburn
But some people, like Huus, opt for preventative gastrectomies, which means having their entire stomach removed while they’re still cancer-free.
At age 19, Huus watched her mother die within a year of being diagnosed with gastric cancer. So when she turned 30, she underwent a genetic test to find out her risk of hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (HDGC). According to statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women who test positive for the HDGC gene have a 56 percent to 83 percent chance of developing gastric cancer. Huus chose to lose her stomach and forego the risk of losing her life.
“With something like this, your mindset matters,” Huus told SELF.com. “I feel grateful to be given this amazing chance to prevent the cancer that took my mom, and also to live in a way that is incredibly healthy for me.”
If you’re experiencing any symptoms of stomach cancer or have a family history of stomach cancer, make an appointment with the experts at Gastroenterology Associates of Pensacola. Call 850-474-8988 or visit them online at endo-world.com.