When Katy Kosyachkova was diagnosed with stomach cancer more than a decade ago, doctors said that even with chemotherapy, radiation and the complete surgical removal of her stomach, her chances of survival were 50 percent.
“Basically, at 21 you’re told your life is tossing a coin,” Kosyachkova said.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, only 29 per cent of people diagnosed with gastroesophageal (GE) cancer survive at least five years.
The grim statistics continue to fuel Kosyachkova’s advocacy even now that she is cancer-free.
“During my surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I felt very alone,” Kosyachkova said. It was 2011 and she said there was no support network in Canada for stomach cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.
In 2016, Kosyachkova and fellow survivor Teresa Tiano co-founded My Gut Feeling, also known as the Stomach Cancer Foundation of Canada.
Kosyachkova says she and Tiano leaned on each other a lot as they discovered a niche to promote education and advocacy for those fighting this deadly disease.
Their efforts have helped secure millions in grants, according to Dr. Elena Elimova, a medical oncologist specializing in gastroesophageal cancers at Princess Margaret Cancer Center in Toronto, where Kosyachkova is now a physician’s assistant.
“My Gut Feeling has been instrumental in raising a lot of research money,” Elimova said. She says the hospital recently secured $3.7 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to support clinical trials of a promising drug. The drug, zanidatamab, targets a specific protein that causes cancer cells to grow rapidly.
The specific protein is called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), Elimova said, and it currently occurs in about 20 percent of stomach cancer patients.
“We know that if we give these patients therapies targeting HER2, they will last longer,” Elimova said.
The grant allowed the hospital to conduct clinical trials at centers across Canada, which in turn allowed patients to avoid the need to uproot their lives to receive care at Princess Margaret, he said.
“The trial was developed with the help of patient advocates at My Gut Feeling because, of course, it is very important for us as doctors to know what is important to our patients,” Elimova said.
The patient survives the prognosis
When Gary Wang was diagnosed with stomach cancer in August 2020 after three days in the emergency room with stomach pain, he says he was given between a month and a year to live.
He is one of the patients in the clinical trial and is still alive 39 months after his diagnosis.
He says zanidatamab stopped the pain and nausea he was experiencing and made it possible for Wang to return to work full-time at an IT company.
“I have no problems traveling or going to the gym,” said Wang, who adds that he will likely continue taking zanidatamab for a few years while the hospital monitors his cancer.
There are more treatment options now, Elimova says, than when she started working as an oncologist 10 years ago.
More research and money needed, says Elimova
Although most patients diagnosed with stomach cancer will die from it, Elimova says it doesn’t receive as much attention or funding compared to more common cancers such as lung, breast, colorectal and prostate.
She credits My Gut Feeling for changing that by bringing attention to it.
“I think there is a lot of hope, but I think that hope will only continue to advance if we continue to research this cancer,” Elimova said.
“I think they’ve made a tremendous difference in what we do, because they’ve raised awareness about what’s happening.”
My Gut Feeling hosts bi-weekly support groups for patients, as well as an annual conference where patients, caregivers, survivors and healthcare professionals can learn about the latest in research and treatment options.
Kosyachkova says the results of her six-year campaign will be on display on November 30, when 150 international sites around the world, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and the Kyoto Tower in Japan, will be illuminated periwinkle blue. for Stomach Cancer Awareness Day. .
“We’re very proud of that,” he said.