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Toby Keith Shares Stomach Cancer Update: "It's Pretty Debilitating"

Here’s what to know about stomach cancer.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Country singer Toby Keith is updating fans on his battle with cancer. The 61-year-old was diagnosed with stomach cancer in fall 2021, and first revealed what was happening in June 2022, when he announced he would be stepping back from music for treatment. "Last fall I was diagnosed with stomach cancer," he said at the time. "I've spent the last 6 months receiving chemo, radiation and surgery. So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover and relax. I am looking forward to spending this time with my family. But I will see the fans sooner than later. I can't wait." In an upcoming interview with Country Music Television, Keith speaks out about his journey so far, saying, "I need a little bit of time to just rest up and heal up. It's pretty debilitating to have to go through all that, but as long as everything stays hunky-dory, then we'll look at something good in the future."

Keith's optimism about the future is backed up by encouraging statistics concerning stomach cancer. "Stomach cancer, also called gastric cancer, can happen in any part of the stomach," says Mayo Clinic oncologist Dr. Bassam Sonbol. "However, in the US, most stomach cancers occur in the gastroesophageal junction, which is where the esophagus – the tube that carries chewed up food – meets the stomach. There are several different types of stomach cancers, but most are curable if detected at an early stage. 

"What once was the leading cause of cancer death is now well down on the list thanks to the advancement in technology and scientific research. In fact, new cases of stomach cancers have dropped by about 1.5% every year for the last 10 years." Here are five things to know about stomach cancer, according to medical experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Risk Factors For Stomach Cancer

stomach problems

While anyone can get stomach cancer, there are certain lifestyle elements that can increase risk—especially smoking. "Smoking increases stomach cancer risk, particularly for cancers of the upper part of the stomach near the esophagus," says the American Cancer Society. "The rate of stomach cancer is about doubled in people who smoke." Age is also a risk. "Stomach cancer more commonly affects older people," says Dr. Sonbol. "The average age of those diagnosed with stomach cancer is 68. Around 60% of cases occur in patients older than 65, and there is a slightly higher lifetime risk of stomach cancer in men. However, it can affect anyone. Stomach cancer tends to develop slowly over time, usually over many years. What happens is small changes occur in the DNA of the stomach cells, telling them to over multiply and then they accumulate, forming abnormal growth called tumors. 

"There are several known risk factors that could increase your risk of developing stomach cancer, for instance, smoking doubles your risk of stomach cancer, family history of stomach cancer, infection with H. pylori, long-term stomach inflammation, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or stomach polyps. Eating a diet high in salty and smoked foods or low in fruits and vegetables can also be a risk. And there is some correlation between higher weight and risk, as well."


Stomach Cancer Symptoms

Man feeling stomach pain at home.

"Stomach cancer can present itself in several different ways, such as difficulty swallowing, feeling bloated after eating, feeling full after only eating a small amount of food, heartburn, indigestion, nausea, stomach pain, unintentional weight loss, and vomiting," says Dr. Sonbol. "If you have any signs and symptoms that worry you, make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor may investigate the more common causes of these symptoms first or refer you to a specialist, like a gastroenterologist or an oncologist, like me."

"Stomach cancer can make the wall of your stomach very rigid and reduce its capacity to store food," says general surgeon Daniel Joyce, MBBCh. "In cases where the stomach cancer spreads to the lining of the abdomen, it can cause an accumulation of fluid within your abdominal cavity… If there's a large cancer growth at the stomach's exit point, fluid can accumulate and the path of least resistance can be back up the food pipe/esophagus. Weight loss can happen because of loss of appetite. "People no longer feel hungry and ultimately start losing weight without trying," says Dr. Joyce. "That's probably the most concerning symptom."


How Is Stomach Cancer Diagnosed?

Partial view of woman holding paper made large intestine on grey background.

There are several methods of detecting stomach cancer, according to Dr. Sonbol, including ultrasounds, imagine tests, and surgery. "A blood test can't diagnose stomach cancer. Blood tests can give your provider clues about your health. For example, tests to measure your liver health might show problems caused by stomach cancer that spreads to the liver. Another type of blood test looks for pieces of cancer cells in the blood. This is called a circulating tumor DNA test. It's only used in certain situations for people with stomach cancer. For example, this test might be used if you have advanced cancer and can't have a biopsy. Collecting pieces of cells from the blood can give your health care team information to help plan your treatment. 

"Ultrasound is an imaging test that uses sound waves to make pictures. For stomach cancer, the pictures can show how far the cancer has grown into the stomach wall. To get the pictures, a thin tube with a camera on the tip goes down the throat and into the stomach. A special ultrasound tool is used to make pictures of the stomach. Ultrasound might be used to look at lymph nodes near the stomach. The images can help guide a needle to collect tissue from the lymph nodes. The tissue is tested in a lab to look for cancer cells. Imaging tests make pictures to help your care team look for signs that stomach cancer has spread. The pictures could show cancer cells in nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body. Tests may include CT and positron emission tomography (PET). Sometimes imaging tests don't give a clear picture of your cancer, so surgery is needed to see inside the body. Surgery can look for cancer that has spread, which is also called metastasized cancer. Surgery might help your health care team make sure there are no small bits of cancer on the liver or in the belly."


How Is Stomach Cancer Treated?

Woman Receiving Radiation Therapy Treatments for Breast Cancer

The earlier stomach cancer is diagnosed, the higher the chances of successful treatment. "First, what's meant by cure is to get rid of the cancer completely and prevent it from coming back in the future," says Dr. Sonbol. "For gastric cancer that hasn't traveled to a different organ, cure is possible. And it's the main goal. An endoscopic procedure or surgery can achieve cure. Adding chemotherapy to surgery in some circumstances can also increase the chance of cure.

"In patients who have metastatic disease, cure is rarely achieved. Therefore, the treatment goal is to prolong life and improve quality of life. We know that systemic treatments, such as chemotherapy targeted therapies, and others, increase quality of life for the majority of patients, as it controls the cancer, along with multiple symptoms caused by the cancer itself. In addition, science is advancing every day and some of the treatments we have now were not available the year before. And with some newer treatments, we are encountering improvement in the overall outcomes and in some circumstances, long remissions."


How To Prevent Stomach Cancer

eat fiber foods

Stomach cancer risk can be reduced by avoiding certain things. "Limit the amount of alcohol you drink and do not use tobacco products," says Stanford Health. "Avoid eating smoked and pickled foods and salted meats and fish. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of whole grain foods, such as whole grain breads, cereals, pasta and rice. Maintain a healthy weight."

"As a society, we eat a lot of processed and unhealthy foods that cause these benign symptoms that we have. We really need to shift back to a cleaner, mostly plant-based diet," advises Dr. Joyce. "There's no doubt that the data supports a diet that's rich in fresh vegetables, minimal fruit and minimal meat, especially processed meat. Avoiding these toxic foods will not only decrease a person's risk for cancer development, but also the digestive symptoms from eating them."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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