Stage 1 stomach cancer: Jamie's story

Photo of Jamie Vi

Advanced gastric procedure to save her stomach worth the 3-hour drive to Roswell Park

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘If you don’t make time to focus on your health and fitness, you’ll be forced to find time to focus on your illness,” says Jamie Virkler, age 52. So, as someone who was fit, active and always kept up with yearly physicals and routine health screenings, she was shocked to hear the results of her annual mammogram at age 45 and her first colonoscopy at age 50.

“While ‘fortunate’ isn’t exactly the term I’d use to describe being diagnosed with two cancers within five years, some of my doctors used that term since both cancers were found early," she says. "And even though Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is nearly three hours from where I lived, I felt fortunate that I was able to travel there to receive a cutting-edge stomach-saving treatment that was not available at my local hospital, and today I am cancer-free.”

Screenings detect cancer before any symptoms appear

During a routine mammogram, Jamie’s doctor compared her new images to the previous year’s and noticed a change in one of her breasts. While it turned out to be malignant, the cancer had not spread and was designated stage 1A. Jamie opted for lumpectomy plus radiation at a medical facility near her home. Three years after beating breast cancer, Jamie had routine bloodwork for her annual primary care wellness visit. “Even though I had no noticeable symptoms, my bloodwork showed that I was anemic. I was 50 and since I was already scheduled for my first colonoscopy, my doctor recommended that I also have an endoscopy at the same time, to see if the tests might offer clues as to why I was anemic,” Jamie recalls. The endoscopy found and removed a small polyp in her stomach, which was sent for pathology analysis.

A few days later, during her surveillance visit with her breast oncologist, Jamie mentioned that she had received a message that the GI doctor would like to speak with her. “I hadn’t been able to reach him though, so my very kind oncologist asked to step in and try to reach the doctor. Together we heard the bad news: my polyp was malignant, and I had stage 1 stomach (gastric) cancer.”

The diagnosis was a complete shock, especially since Jamie had no common risk factors for stomach cancer. Stomach cancer is two times more common in men than in women, especially among Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian/Pacific Islanders, and is most frequently diagnosed among people in their 60s and 70s. “Everyone was surprised about my diagnosis because I was ‘so young,’ and while I’m usually happy to be considered ‘young,’ in this case, it was not that comforting,” she laughs.

A second opinion at Roswell Park changes everything

When Jamie’s local GI specialist told her that treatment would involve removing some or all of her stomach, “that’s when I knew I needed to up my game,” she says. “I’d seen Roswell Park’s ‘Spend One Day with Us’ commercials on local TV. At first I thought ‘I don't need to drive back and forth all the way to Buffalo for a consultation, tests and procedures.’ I had to remind myself that I have only have one life and it's worth fighting for! At the end of the day, your health is number one. I decided I at least owed myself a consultation at Roswell Park and then I could make an informed decision. Given the results, I would have flown back and forth if I needed to.”

A few days after calling Roswell Park, Jamie and her fiancé traveled to Buffalo and met with surgical oncologist Moshim Kukar, MD, who specializes in treatment of esophageal and gastric cancer. “Right out of the gate, because of Dr. Kukar’s bedside manner and expertise, I knew I was in the right place with the right doctor. He told me that removal of my stomach was one option, but because he and his team had analyzed the results of my endoscopic ultrasound, and because my tumor was early stage and located in the superficial mucosal layer of my stomach, he felt confident it could be removed via endoscopic mucosal resection.” 

Advanced procedure saved her stomach

Endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR) is a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure performed at high volume treatment centers like Roswell Park that have highly skilled, advanced endoscopists and surgeons. A specialized endoscope (a thin flexible tube with a light, a camera and a looped tip) is introduced through either the mouth or the anus, depending on the location of the lesion and guided to the lesion. No surgical incisions are necessary. A fluid is injected under the lesion, creating a cushion between it and healthy tissue, and the looped tip then scoops the lesion away. In most cases, patients can go home the same day of the procedure.

Jamie had her EMR procedure in October 2020, and is still free of both gastric cancer and breast cancer. “Dr. Kukar and Roswell Park made my treatment as easy and pleasant as possible,” says Jamie. “For instance, because they knew I was traveling three hours to Buffalo, instead of requiring me to have a negative COVID test in advance of each appointment, they arranged for me to have a PCR test when I got to Buffalo. My EMR procedure worked perfectly, with little discomfort, and my stomach was saved. And when I moved to Florida in August 2021, Dr. Kukar consulted with my new GI doctor on the results of my additional endoscopies and MRI results.”

Looking forward and back

Jamie has now moved to the next chapter of her life. “I recently got married and will be going on my honeymoon in a few weeks.” Looking back, Jamie has these words of advice: “Don’t underestimate the importance of your routine cancer screenings. If I hadn’t been on top of those, I might not be here today,” she says. “Sometimes we forget we have choices in healthcare. If at any point, you aren't sure about a plan from one doctor, or if something doesn't feel right, get a second opinion. You can't put a price on your peace of mind." Jamie recalls how “unfortunate” she felt at the beginning of her cancer journey. “But now I realize how fortunate I am. I have been given a third chance, I got that second opinion that saved my stomach, and I was cared for by such amazing and caring staff at Roswell Park. It was absolutely worth the three-hour drive each way to receive their professional and expert and cutting-edge treatment.”

Why Roswell Park for stomach cancer?

We offer treatments at the forefront of cancer care, plus clinicians with the knowledge and experience to use them.

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Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.