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Losing My Mom and Finding Hope through Stomach Cancer Awareness

megan widmer and her mother
Megan Widmer (left) with her mother

From time to time, HCI invites guest commentary from our community. The views reflected in these commentaries are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of HCI.

This winter, two years will have gone by since my mom passed away from stomach cancer.

What started for my mom as a little stomach pain—originally diagnosed as reflux—grew progressively worse over the following weeks and months. My mom’s doctors didn’t test for cancer because she was young—only 46 at the time. With no family history of cancer, we had no reason to suspect it.

The stomach pain worsened to the point that she got an endoscopy. On her 47th birthday, my mom was told that she had "incurable" stomach cancer. It was at stage IV. I’m sure many other families touched by cancer can empathize with the stomach-lurching, heart-stopping shock of hearing a diagnosis that seemed to come from nowhere.

At first, the hope I had was mostly based on denial. I couldn’t believe this could possibly be happening to my family—to my mom. After all, to my then-19-year-old-self, cancer was something that only happened to other people’s families. My "hope" was founded on my certainty that she would defy the prognosis, that a miracle would happen, that the doctors would be wrong, and that she would be the exception to the rule.

Despite my hope, my mom was not among the survivors. Each year 22,000 Americans are diagnosed with stomach cancer. Of those cases, 80% are caught in the late stage, where the disease is incurable. That’s because there are no routine screenings for stomach cancer. It’s scary to know that stomach cancer is increasing in prevalence—since the 1970s, diagnoses have risen 70% in young people between the ages of 25 and 39. The survival rates for stomach cancer are staggeringly low, with 28% of overall survivorship of the disease. And patients diagnosed in stage IV only have a 4% survival rate after 5 years.

Through the experience of losing my mom, I have learned that cancer can be a catalyst for activism. Many of us who have experience with this disease are working to raise awareness. The month of November 2017 has been declared by Governor Gary Herbert as Stomach Cancer Awareness Month in the state of Utah. With the help of the entire community, we can fight alongside those suffering from this disease.

letter from governor

This experience has also taught me about the power and strength of a loving community. The outpouring of love and support my family received during my mom’s nine-month fight was manifested by friends, neighbors, family, and the community at Huntsman Cancer Institute, who truly took up the fight alongside us despite the daunting uncertainty of what lay ahead.

My definition of hope has also transformed. Instead of desperately clinging to improbabilities, I have found a steadfast, optimistic outlook for the future despite whatever obstacles may arise.

Learn more about stomach cancer symptoms and treatment.