Most of us don't like talking about — or even thinking about — what goes on inside our gut.
We might obsess about its outer appearance. But whether it's a flat tummy or a jelly-belly, the real work of the stomach happens out of sight.
Unfortunately, we're also often in the dark about what's happening amid the highly acidic digestive juices that are secreted. And it's not easy to tell if there's a serious problem — such as cancer.
Just ask Cyndi Ferguson, a registered nurse, whose pastor-husband died last year from gastric (stomach) cancer.
“This cancer is really devastating, and more prevalent than people think,” she said. “Most people don't have a clue. Doug was a healthy guy, and it blindsided us. I can't tell you how shocked we were.”
Training for his second marathon in 2010 by running miles around Zorinsky Lake in Omaha, the Rev. Doug Ferguson occasionally would stop and vomit. He mentioned it later, and Cyndi laments that she didn't suggest he see a physician for an endoscopy.
“Something should have clicked,” she said. “I just thought, ‘It's hot. It's August.'”
By the time he saw a doctor, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer, meaning it was advanced. He died June 26, 2011.
Dr. Paul Cook of Omaha, who practices family medicine, said a problem with suspecting stomach cancer is that the early symptoms are common to people who don't have cancer — indigestion, mild nausea, heartburn, loss of appetite, bloating.
“I've probably felt those 10 times in the last six months,” he said. “It's kind of logical to ignore them for a while.”
The key, he said, is if symptoms persist for two to four weeks. Then you need to see your doctor.
Cook is working with Cyndi to promote awareness and prevention.
“She's a dynamo,” he said, “and I'm glad to help her. She is broken-hearted but not defeated.”
The physician and three of his sons plan to take part in Saturday's “Run for Doug” at 9 a.m. at Chalco Hills Recreation Area, near 154th Street and Giles Road. (Go to www.runfordoug.org for more information on the event, which includes a 5K run/walk and a one-mile walk.)
The exact cause of gastric cancer is unknown, but it occurs twice as often in men as in women. Smoking, drinking alcohol to excess and a diet low in fruits and vegetables may increase the risk.
A bacterium known as H. pylori also is linked to stomach cancer, and Cook said a simple blood test in a physician's office can detect it.
Symptoms of stomach cancer include vomiting, blood in the stool, weight loss for unknown reason and jaundice.
Eight years ago, I vomited lots of blood and received an ambulance ride to the Nebraska Medical Center. Surgeons soon removed a 2.5-centimeter tumor from the top of my stomach — a gastrointestinal stromal tumor.
As I have been told by various medical folks, I was very lucky. The tumor was discovered because it had developed an ulcer that bled into my stomach. Once it made me throw up, it was obvious even to me that I had a problem.
“In medicine,” Cook told me this week, “I like to think we get yellow flags and red flags. You got a nice, big red flag there. Yellow flags are harder to interpret.”
Pastor Doug, unfortunately, didn't get clear warnings in the early stages of his cancer, adenocarcinoma. Cyndi is working hard to raise awareness in partnership with a nonprofit foundation called Can't Stomach Cancer.
“Doug had had indigestion,” she said. “He just put up with it and didn't complain about it.”
The pastor grew up in Arnold, Neb., graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and earned master's degrees in divinity and counseling. He served 21 years at Methodist churches and in 2000 established Celebration Covenant Church in the Millard area.
Cyndi, a former hospice nurse, provided hospice care to Doug in his final days. He died at 60 and left behind three children and a grandchild.
Compared with some other cancers, she said, research for stomach cancer is underfunded.
“It gets hardly any attention,” she said, “because so few people survive to tell their stories. This is such an aggressive, silent cancer.”
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