As you are well aware, November is Stomach Cancer Awareness Month. When we were discussing which month would be the most appropriate month for stomach cancer awareness, the choice seemed obvious; Thanksgiving is a holiday that focuses on food, something that can unquestionably be a challenge for those affected by stomach cancer.
Shortly after our discussion began, we learned that in 2004, the US Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving to be “Know Your Family History Day.” The logic is that family members, while spending time together, will talk to one another and learn more about their medical histories. In fact, through the Surgeon General’s office, a web site was established that allows people to document their medical background and allow others to add theirs too. It is https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action
This might not seem like the most exciting or uplifting conversation to have, but it is a critical one. It is by sharing our backgrounds and our stories that we may start to notice patterns in families, patterns that we would not know otherwise. There are many medical conditions that are hereditary and often preventable; however, you need to know about them before you can do anything.
My family members and I are living proof of the importance of knowing your medical history. My brother Steve was diagnosed with stomach cancer and my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005. An astute oncologist realized that they shared the same rare cancer cell type. After that realization, my mom started to do some checking on family medical history and that is when the pieces of the puzzle started to fit together. We knew her father had stomach cancer, but it was later in life. My mom didn’t have stomach cancer, so we didn’t see an obvious connection when Steve was diagnosed. It seems if it was hereditary, she would have had it. However, she then learned that her uncle died of stomach cancer in his 40’s and that his son, her cousin, died of stomach cancer is his 40’s. And here was Steve, in his 40’s, with stomach cancer.
Seven months after Steve passed away, a blood test revealed that mom had Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer and carried a mutation in the CDH1 gene that causes stomach, breast, and colon cancer. That is why Steve had stomach cancer. That is why mom had colon cancer. Once we had this information, my siblings and I were tested as were some of my mom’s other relatives. My brother Mike, my sister Kathy, and I all had the genetic mutation. This meant there was an extremely high risk that we would develop those cancers, especially diffuse stomach cancer, which is nearly impossible to detect through an endoscopy.
In 2007, not even a year after Steve died, we all had our entire stomachs removed to prevent developing stomach cancer. The surgery proved to be life-saving as we all had precancerous cells growing in us. Knowing our medical backgrounds unquestionably saved our lives. There are also four other family members who have been identified as having this mutation: two of Steve’s kids and two cousins. Eventually, our children will be tested.
Learning about our medical histories can certainly be scary and even a bit depressing. However, doing so can give us choices and it can be empowering. Some people will choose to take preventive measures to avoid particular medical problems; others will decide preventive measures are not for them. Regardless of what people decide, the key word is choice. Having the information allows people to make informed choices, whatever those may be.
Please take time when gathered with family to share your family history. You might be saving the life of someone who is near and dear to you.
And don’t forget about our “Refrigerator Campaign!”As you prepare food to bring to others’ houses for Thanksgiving, please take a minute to print out one of our awareness flyers from our web site by going to the “Support Us” tab, then “Raise Awareness!” Bring the flyer with your food item and ask your host to put in on the refrigerator. As people get items out of the refrigerator, they will learn something about stomach cancer. If you are the host, please put one on your refrigerator. Think of the awareness we can raise about stomach cancer if we can get information on refrigerators throughout the world!
Enjoy the time with your families, and Happy Thanksgiving!