Melani Vincelli – New Jersey

Like most woman today, I always put my health concerns last. So in January of 2009 when I noticed some pressure under my breastbone, I ignored it. I thought that I am too young for anything to be seriously wrong. I was only 49. I had a stressful job, I sold technology to businesses and with the recession in full swing, I wrote it off as stress. I already had IBS so it had to be that or maybe an ulcer. My husband owned his own business at the time and things were slow. Between his business and my job ….my bet was on the ulcer. Besides, my then 21-year-old son needed to have sinus surgery before I even thought of doing anything for myself so if the sensations continued then I resigned myself to go for a checkup.

In May, I was starting to have some nausea and I wasn’t eating that well. I had lost almost 30 lbs which was actually a nice surprise but I thought a trip to my family doctor was in order. My doctor asked me why it took me so long to come and see him. I answered that I really wanted to wait until I lost 50lbs in case he reversed the symptoms and I started to gain the weight back again. He did a full blood work up and I went home to wait for the results.

The doctor called me the next day and said that I was anemic. Ok, bleeding ulcer I thought…He wanted me to see a gastroenterologist for an endoscope. The gastroenterologist is a friend of ours through a mutual friend and had seen my husband for acid reflux and other problems so it was a very cordial visit. He scheduled me for the endoscope that week.

So now it is June 2009, and I am sitting in the recovery area of the hospital after my endoscope with my hubby by my side. I was one of the first appointments that morning but the doctor kept going past my bed. People who came in after me are going home. Finally, he approaches the foot of my bed. We found a mass he says… and I think, well that is a funny way to tell me I have an ulcer. Wait? A mass…Cancer? Yes, he says. Stomach cancer? Adenocarcinoma and it is quite large. He wants to do a CAT scan to see if it spread anywhere else. Spread anywhere else? I can’t even comprehend the fact that I have cancer in my stomach which really should be an ulcer but now we have to go looking for it in other places?

CAT scan results are in. I have a lesion on my liver. I went from an ulcer to Stage IV stomach cancer within a day and with that my whole life changed.

Choosing a treatment. Should be easy, right? Follow a protocol and you get better. One prominent hospital told me that I only had 6-9 months to live and that I should enter into clinical studies as soon as possible. I was told that I would never be a candidate for surgery. I did not like that diagnosis because I knew that I was going to survive so I found a different hospital that believed everyone was curable… a nicer option that followed my feelings.

I started my chemo in July 2009. After 3 rounds, I had a CAT scan done and I was totally cancer free. There was no trace to be found. I finished the therapy and had a total of 6 rounds of chemo. I returned to see my surgical oncologist in November 2009.

Needless to say, my doctor was very happy to see me. He didn’t think that I was going to survive but the chemo did its job. It was at that appointment that he recommended that I have a total gastrectomy…a complete removal of my stomach. He said that people that opt not to have the surgery see a return of the stomach cancer within a year and they don’t know why. Well that was a no brainer for me. We scheduled my surgery.

On December 7, 2009, I had my entire stomach, part of my liver, and my gallbladder removed. He attached my esophagus directly to my small intestine. I have no pouch or sack. It was a complete removal during an 8 hour surgery. All of the pathology reports came back clean. My doctor leaned over my bed, gave me a kiss on the cheek and said… before you had months.. now you have years. I have been cancer free ever since.

Having no stomach is like having an ooper dooper gastric bypass. I eat small meals many times throughout the day. I find out what I can tolerate through trial and error. I love pizza, steak, and submarine sandwiches. Spaghetti still gives me a little trouble and so does chicken but I can get thru it. I can’t eat a lot of sugary things but then no one should anyway. I lost 80lbs but have gained 16lbs back since the surgery and I actually look great!

I live my life now with no regrets. I try not to sweat the small stuff. It is a shame that it takes something so devastating to open your eyes to the world around you.

After living through this, I tell my story to as many people who will listen. I believe that I made it through all of this for a reason. I want to be an inspiration to others. I want just one person to make a decision to see a doctor after hearing me or maybe I can help someone live thru a cancer diagnosis. If I can help someone make a decision about his or her treatment or if someone can look at me and think, wow look at what she went through, look at what she was told but she is still here, I can do it too… then it was worth it.

So now I help other stomach cancer patients by being a contact with the Debbie’s Dream Foundation Patient Resource Education Program. I speak one on one to other stomach cancer patients and we share stories, advice, and resources. I also founded Debbie’s Dream Foundation’s South New Jersey Chapter to raise awareness and help as many people as I possibly can.

You don’t have to listen to the odds and the statistics. Stage IV is a label, a phrase but not a way of life or a death sentence….just look at me.