Toby Keith’s Passing Sparks Inquiry Into Stomach Cancer Symptoms And Treatment

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Country music sensation Toby Keith, renowned for this chart-topping debut single “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” in the early 1990s, passed away at the age of 62 after battling stomach cancer.

The sad news was conveyed by Keith’s family in a statement released on February 6 via X (formerly known as Twitter).

The statement read, “Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5 surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage.”

“Please respect the privacy of his family at this time,” the message concluded.

He Shared His Stomach Cancer Diagnosis After 6 Months of Chemo Treatment

It was in the fall of 2021 that Keith was diagnosed with stomach cancer. “I’ve spent the last six months receiving chemo, radiation, and surgery. So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover, and relax,” read the Instagram post from the following spring.

As reported by PBS, Keith continued to perform after his diagnosis, most recently in Las Vegas in December and at the People’s Choice Country Awards in 2023.

Keith said during an interview with E! News last September 2023, “I feel pretty good. It’s a little bit of a roller coaster. You get good days and, you know, you’re up and down, up and down. It’s always zero to 60 and 60 to zero, but I feel good today.”

What is Stomach Cancer?

Stomach cancer, though less prevalent compared to cancers affecting organs like the breast, lung, prostate, and colon, still affects around 27,000 individuals annually in the United States, resulting in approximately 11,000 deaths, as reported by the American Cancer Society.

In contrast, lung cancer remains the deadliest cancer in the nation, claiming approximately 127,000 lives each year.

Dr. Zev Wainberg, a professor of medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles and co-director of the UCLA GI Oncology program, notes that while stomach cancer is relatively rare in the United States compared to regions like Asia, its incidence is not to be underestimated.

According to Dr. Wainberg, gastroesophageal cancer is the most common type of stomach cancer in the United States.

“The stomach is kind of a long organ and cancer can start in a few different spots along the way. Gastroesophageal cancer occurs at the place where the esophagus meets the stomach, called the gastroesophageal junction,” he explains.

Is There a Link Between Stomach Cancer and Heartburn?

Dr. Wainberg explains that in the United States, people are at higher risk for this type of stomach cancer because of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), commonly referred to as heartburn.

He says, “Long-term acid reflux can damage the esophagus and may lead to a condition called Barrett esophagus, which can be a precursor to esophageal cancer.”

Even with this specific group, the risk of developing stomach cancer remains comparatively low. Among 1,000 individuals diagnosed with Barrett esophagus but showing no indications of cancer, approximately three individuals may expect to advance to esophageal cancer within a year.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Stomach Cancer?

According to Dr. Wainberg, symptoms of stomach cancer may involve difficulty swallowing, food becoming lodged, unexplained weight loss, or bleeding, which can occur through vomiting or passage of blood in stool.

Additionally, Ning Jin, MD, a medical oncologist who specializes in treating gastrointestinal cancers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Colombus also shares that nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and feeling bloated can also by symptoms of stomach cancer. 

Dr. Wainberg goes on to share that because stomach cancer in the United States is uncommon, there aren’t routine recommended screenings for it.

He says, “Screening tests are usually determined by the risks and benefits — what’s the right thing for 100 million people? According to the people who decide what cancers are screened for, we don’t have enough of this type of cancer to justify doing an endoscopy on everybody.”

During an upper endoscopy, employed for the diagnosis and screening of stomach cancer, the patient undergoes general sedation, ensuring they are asleep and experience no discomfort. A specialized tube equipped with a camera is inserted through the mouth, traversing the esophagus until it reaches the stomach.

What are The Top Risk Factors For Stomach Cancer?

“As is the case with a lot of gastrointestinal cancers, we still don’t understand why the majority of people get this kind of cancer. It’s not like lung cancer, where smoking is clearly the No. 1 risk factor,” says Dr. Wainberg.

He also points out that for that reason, it’s important to stay vigilant about symptoms.

Dr. Jin says that smoking, obesity, overconsuming alcohol, high consumption of smoked and salty food, and having a diet in low vegetables are known risk factors for stomach cancer.

Helicobacter pylori infections in the stomach post a risk factor, as this bacterium is the primary culprit behind peptic ulcers, gastritis, and potentially stomach cancer. It’s estimated that 30 to 40 percent of individuals in the United States contract an H. pylori infection at some stage in their lives, often during childhood.

This bacterium is more prevalent in regions with inadequate sanitation and clean water, contributing to the lower incidence of stomach cancer in the United States compared to other global regions.

Understanding the Outlook for Someone with Stomach Cancer

Dr. Wainberg shares that because there is no routine screening for stomach cancer, a majority of the people aren’t diagnosed until they have symptoms. The problem with this is that the cancer is often already stage 3 or stage 4.

He says, “So upwards of 60 percent of patients are found when it’s already advanced disease, and that’s a more difficult scenario.”

Normally, when the cancer is diagnosed in time, treatment includes surgery and chemotherapy.

“If the cancer is spread to other parts of the body, unfortunately, that’s stage 4 disease, and treatment would typically be chemotherapy and immunotherapy, not surgery,” says Dr. Wainberg.

For people diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, only about 1 in 10 people are still alive after 5 years, says Wainberg. “If it’s diagnosed a little earlier in stage 3, about 40 or 50 percent of people can survive at five years,” he says.

Never Ignore Continuous Acid Reflux or Heartburn

Dr. Wainberg shares that may people with heartburn symptoms believe that its due to stress and end up ignoring it. However, if these symptoms continue or get worse, you need to talk to your doctor about them.

“We’ve learned that we shouldn’t be ignoring persistent, difficult symptoms of heartburn and reflux, because they can get worse over time and cause damage,” he says.

Your doctor might recommend an upper endoscopy to detect any potential signs of stomach cancer.

Even in the absence of symptoms, you and your doctor may determine that your risk factors warrant a screening. These factors may encompass ethnicity (with first – and second – generation immigrants from East Asia, Russia, and South America considered at higher risk), family history, race (nonwhite individuals facing elevated risk), smoking habits, overall health status, and genetic predisposition to stomach cancer.

Regarding modifiable risk factors, Dr. Wainberg suggests that maintaining a healthy weight, refraining from smoking, and moderating alcohol intake can help mitigate your risk.