I am still dreaming big!

Debra Zelman

I am the four percent!

Only four percent of stage 4 stomach cancer patients survive five years after diagnosis. It has now been five and a half years since I was told that I had stage 4 incurable stomach (gastric) cancer.

At the time of my diagnosis I was 40, the mother of three young children, married to a physician and a practicing attorney with my own firm. I was healthy, ate salad and broccoli every day, didn't smoke or drink, exercised, took my vitamins and had no family history of cancer. I had no risk factors for stomach cancer at all.

Suddenly, I was told that I only had a few weeks to live. My 3-year-old daughter would not remember me. My 10-year-old twins would go through their teenage years without a mother. However, I repeated a line from my favorite Dylan Thomas poem that "I will not go gently into that good night," and I began the fight of my life. I immediately underwent very harsh chemotherapy treatments and spent years in bed, hospitals and doctors' offices.

Soon after I started my chemo, I began speaking with other stomach cancer patients because I refused to be just another statistic, and work needed to be done to raise awareness, fund research and support patients, families and caregivers. I started activities to raise funds for stomach cancer research; then it became apparent that there was a great need for resources for patients, families and caregivers all over the world. This was the beginning of Debbie's Dream Foundation: Curing Stomach Cancer which was the first organization dedicated to helping stomach cancer patients, raising money for research and educating the public about stomach cancer.

Just to put this disease in perspective, stomach cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men and fourth among women worldwide. Each year nearly 930,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with stomach cancer, and approximately 700,000 die of the disease. Approximately 22,000 Americans will be diagnosed with stomach cancer each year, and over 10,000 will die within a year. According to the American Cancer Society, the overall 5-year survival rate for people with stomach cancer in the United States is about 28 percent, and the 5-year survival rate for stage 4 stomach cancer is 4 percent. Per cancer death, stomach cancer receives the least amount of federal funding of any cancer.

In parts of Asia where gastric cancer is highly prevalent, aggressive screening programs have had some success in detecting stomach cancer early and thereby improving the outcomes; but in the United States there are no effective screening methods and no established programs for prevention or early detection. In addition, the symptoms of stomach cancer are not specific and are common to many gastric problems such as ulcers and gastritis. They include abdominal discomfort, indigestion, loss of appetite, occasional vomiting and a feeling of fullness after eating small amounts of food.

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