Woman, 39, thought her severe heartburn was a heart attack. It was stomach cancer

By | February 24, 2024

For more than two years, Camilla Row kept telling her doctors about heartburn-like pain that wouldn’t go away.

She tried every lifestyle change they recommended – cutting out coffee, avoiding spicy and salty foods, sleeping on an angled pillow – but nothing worked.

The gastroenterologists she consulted just told her to continue taking medications that reduced stomach acid. She was a young mother in her thirties and otherwise healthy, so none of the specialists looked into it further, she says.

Row was in her mid-30s when she started experiencing symptoms.  Her children were 3 and 5 when she was diagnosed with cancer.  (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

Row was in her mid-30s when she started experiencing symptoms. Her children were 3 and 5 when she was diagnosed with cancer. (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

The pain became so severe that Row feared she was having a heart attack. She remembers begging her doctor for help.

“I was actually crying. I’m like, ‘This hurts so bad, please don’t send me home,'” Row, who lives in Studio City, California and is now 45, tells TODAY.com.

A doctor eventually arranged an endoscopy, which revealed the real diagnosis: stomach cancer.

“The first question I asked was: can you get stomach cancer?” she remembers. “I didn’t know anything about it.”

The ordeal would ultimately lead to the removal of not only her stomach, but also her ovaries and breasts.

Symptoms of stomach cancer

Row was particularly baffled because before her symptoms started in 2015, she considered herself very healthy.

She ate well and exercised several times a week. She met her husband, actor Brennan Elliott, at a gym. She has no family history of stomach cancer.

Row shares a happy moment with her husband, Brennan Elliott, and children Liam (right) and Luna.  (Courtesy of Camilla Row)Row shares a happy moment with her husband, Brennan Elliott, and children Liam (right) and Luna.  (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

Row shares a happy moment with her husband, Brennan Elliott, and children Liam (right) and Luna. (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

After she was diagnosed with gastric adenocarcinoma in 2018, her entire stomach and 47 lymph nodes were removed. Two lymph nodes near her stomach were positive for cancer, meaning Row was stage 1.

She underwent chemotherapy and her esophagus was connected to her small intestine. She had to relearn how to eat and digest without a stomach, which meant pureed food, small portions and a lot of chewing.

Row is frustrated that it took two and a half years to be diagnosed.

It’s a common scenario, says Dr. Yanghee Woo, a surgical oncologist and stomach cancer specialist at City of Hope in California, who is treating Row.

Symptoms of stomach cancer are vague and the disease is rare in the US – accounting for about 1.5% of all newly diagnosed cancers – leading to a “lack of distrust among the medical profession” when patients experience warning signs, she notes on.

Country singer Toby Keith died of stomach cancer on February 5, 2024, two years after his diagnosis.

Row had her stomach removed and underwent chemotherapy.  For a while there were no signs of cancer.  (Courtesy of Camilla Row)Row had her stomach removed and underwent chemotherapy.  For a while there were no signs of cancer.  (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

Row had her stomach removed and underwent chemotherapy. For a while there were no signs of cancer. (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

Woo says the symptoms are:

The early stages of stomach cancer often cause no symptoms at all and don’t show up on scans, the oncologist notes.

“Stomach cancer can hide very well. It’s not very distinctive unless it gets really big,” Woo told TODAY.com.

All these factors mean that at least 80% of gastric patients in the US are already in advanced stages of the disease when diagnosed, she says. Diagnosis typically requires an upper endoscopy and biopsy.

What causes stomach cancer?

A bacterial infection, the food a person eats, and genetic mutations can lead to the disease.

Ethnicity is also a risk factor: In the U.S., stomach cancer is more common among Asian, Hispanic, Black and Native Americans, notes the American Cancer Society.

An important cause is infection with the H. pylori bacteria. It is the same bacteria that causes stomach ulcers and can spread through contaminated food and water, or through contact with the body fluids of an infected person.

The bacteria invades the stomach lining and changes it, causing inflammation, Woo says.

A diet high in salt is another risk factor, as is eating a lot of charred, smoked and preserved foods, she adds.

About 3% of patients have a genetic predisposition to stomach cancer, Woo notes.

Genetic testing revealed that Row has a mutation in the CDH1 gene. Stomach cancer associated with such mutations is aggressive and can worsen quickly, Woo says.

The same mutation increases the risk of breast cancer, so when a breast MRI and biopsy in 2021 revealed that Row had atypical hyperplasia, the step just before breast cancer, she decided to have a double mastectomy to prevent any disease there.

But the ordeal was not over yet.

Stomach cancer returns in the ovaries

To check whether the cancer would return, Row had a CT scan every six months. She also took a blood test that looks for circulating tumor DNA. In 2021, that test came back positive.

Doctors found tumors on her ovaries that were the result of stomach cancer, even though she no longer had a stomach. They told her the cancer cells can “sleep, hide and reactivate,” she says.

Row underwent surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. She was now a stage 4 stomach cancer patient and faced with some discouraging statistics.

“I’ve actually just passed my expiration date because when I was first diagnosed (with stage 4 cancer), the longest prognosis I was given was 24 months. So to be here and say I’m still here, I’m still doing extremely well,” says Row.

She attributes some of that success to a treatment she describes as a “hot chemo wash.” Officially known as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemoperfusion, it delivers chemotherapy that is heated to 107 degrees Fahrenheit directly into the abdomen, where it rotates to target cancer cells, Woo says.

Row now raises awareness about stomach cancer and advocates for other patients.  (Courtesy of Camilla Row)Row now raises awareness about stomach cancer and advocates for other patients.  (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

Row now raises awareness about stomach cancer and advocates for other patients. (Courtesy of Camilla Row)

The heated chemo penetrates the abdominal wall better and has fewer side effects than systemic chemo that is injected into the vein, Woo adds.

Row has now undergone seven such procedures, all requiring general anesthesia, and continues to receive traditional chemotherapy.

She has no evidence of disease on scans but has microscopic levels of circulating tumor in her blood. Her prospects are guarded but very bright, Woo says.

Row, who is a clinical psychologist, says she tries to maintain a very positive attitude and live a normal life with her husband and children. She remains busy raising awareness about stomach cancer and advocating for other patients.

“When I’m short on time, I’m going to make my time worth it and count,” says Row. “Knowing that I can make a difference really makes me feel like my illness was not in vain.”

This article was originally published on TODAY.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *