Steven Melen – California

My story begins in Spring 2007 with my first symptoms. I first started to feel an increased amount of fatigue and was having small amounts of pain while swallowing food. Occasional reflux sent me to my primary care physician where he initially diagnosed my symptoms as stress and gave me a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) to help with the reflux. A few months later, I went back with worse symptoms than before and was tested for an ulcer that came back negative, so doctors gave me more of the PPI. Being 37 years old, having a new baby, a new job and other pressures in my life were red flags for stress, but not stomach cancer.

In January of 2008, I encountered a rough night and needed to see the doctor, but it was too early in the morning. I decided to go to the emergency room where over the next eight hours they discovered I was anemic, then a chest scan showed a mass at the GE junction to my stomach, to having a conforming endoscopy reveal that I had cancer. There was slight swelling in my pancreas, so they were unsure if it was stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, or both. I was diagnosed with stage IIIB stomach cancer and needed to have my stomach, spleen, half of my pancreas, and a third of my esophagus removed. The next three weeks were filled with the hospital, oncology, and GI doctor meetings before the surgery date was set for February 6th.

Surgery appeared to go smoothly, but within 48 hours I had become septic and was announced: “Code Blue,” ending in emergency surgery to fix a leak. Waking up seven days later after being sedated and on a breathing tube was a big challenge. After experiencing excruciating pain and hallucinations, followed by consuming vast amounts of pain meds, I was finally released from the hospital 30 days later and re-entered the world as a wounded 38-year-old man addicted to painkillers. Marred, and with a 1-year-old daughter, there was a lot of stress and pressure on everyone.

Chemo and radiation followed my surgery, and I proceeded to drop down to 95 pounds. That amount of weight was too much to lose, so I had to start on total parenteral nutrition (TPN) through a PICC line inserted in my arm to get nutrients. The coming year was a tough one with ER visits for dehydration, bowel blockage, CT and PET scans and an addiction to pain medication that was getting out of control. The fear of dying coupled with my addiction impacted my marriage. We ended up getting a divorce, and I had to go to rehab twice.

So, even though the first five years were miserable, these past five years have been the best. I no longer get scans nor do I see my doctor very much. I got remarried to a high school friend this past February, my daughter is 11 and we have the most fantastic relationship, and I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. Not to say that I’m all that great or life is easy, but I’ve accepted my skinny body, discomfort, eating, and all of life’s smaller challenges that allows me to be incredibly grateful and happy in the present.

I’ve been to DC, meeting with congress and senate members and helping support gastric cancer and Debbie’s Dream Foundation (DDF). I am also part of DDF’s Patient Resource and Education Program (PREP), and I’m always willing to help give hope and inspiration to those struggling, whether early on or years after recovery.