After suffering stomach cancer that led to the removal of her stomach and parts of her esophagus and intestines four years ago, a local health professional is advocating for greater patient awareness about the disease this month.
Nov. 30 is Stomach Cancer Awareness Day, but the entire month is known as Stomach Cancer Awareness month.
Up to this week she has kept her story private.
“My main objective with sharing my story is that I was first diagnosed because I actually really fought for an endoscopy to happen in the first place,” she said. “My biggest thing as a front-line worker has been to promote patient advocacy or advocating for yourself in the health care system.
“Had we waited for me to present with symptoms I would be dead. Which is kind of scary.”
In August 2015, Mantla-Look’s life changed dramatically after she was diagnosed early with stomach cancer. She said she had none of the common symptoms at the time but had a history since her teens of suffering with a reflux disease which caused her to have really bad heartburn.
After a checkup led to her doctor recommending to have an upper GI endoscopy – which is a tube with a camera that goes through the mouth to evaluate the mouth, swallowing tube, stomach and internal organs – results soon came back that she had stomach cancer.
Within a month she underwent a 10-hour operation to remove her stomach and surrounding lymph nodes as well as parts of her esophagus and intestines.
“The recovery was the most pain I had been in my entire life,” Mantla stated in an email. “I hated every moment of being a patient. Most of my life I’ve taken care of other people and this time it was me in the hospital bed and I did not know how to deal with it.”
Mantla-Look said the removal of her body parts has since led to a completely different lifestyle and a daily routine that has included having to eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day in order to keep her blood levels up.
She also has to ensure that she is equipped with food and drink while travelling and in emergency situations.
“Living without a stomach is a challenge but it is doable,” she said. “I didn’t know you could live without a vital organ like this.
“Eating is a challenge. I have to eat small meals throughout the day – roughly every two hours to keep my blood sugar in check. Drinking fluids is a challenge. I can’t drink and eat at the same time because I don’t have space for both.”
NWT stomach cancer statistics
According to the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services, there have been 38 cases of stomach cancer over the last decade. Of those years, more than 60 per cent of incidents have occurred in the last five years.
In most cases, based on the department’s figures, males are typically more afflicted with the disease as over the last decade, more than 80 per cent of stomach cancer cases were men.
Diagnoses have ranged from people aged 32 to 93 and most cases (69 per cent) were diagnosed later – in either stage three or stage four.
“Usually when it is caught, it is in the late stage, which is stage three or four and your chances of survival then are pretty slim,” said Mantla.
Dr. Andy Delli Pizzi, deputy chief public health officer with the GNWT, said in a recent interview that stomach cancer is typically more common in many other countries than in Canada.
However, it has a high rate of risk for cancer-related death.
“The Canadian Cancer Society shows that the five-year survival rate (from diagnosis to five years) is in the neighbourhood of about 25 per cent,” he said. “So it is a serious cancer typically.”
Delli Pizzi said stomach cancer can be a very serious and life-altering disease, particularly if it is caught in later stages or is associated with an aggressive cancer. It can also pose difficulties for quality of life if it involves serious surgery as in Mantla’s situation.
“It really is a lifelong struggle after treatment for stomach cancer so it does really impact peoples lives, yes, ”said Delli Pizzi.
Pizzi said typically the symptoms are abdominal pain in the upper abdomen that bring persistent discomfort, problems with food digestion, trouble swallowing, severe heartburn, vomiting and in more severe cases – blood in the stool or drastic weight loss.
“Unfortunately, with stomach cancer, the symptoms are so non specific and not always that clear so it is often diagnosed in later stages,” he said.