Published On: Wed, Feb 7th, 2024

After Toby Keith’s death, doctors warn that stomach cancer signs are easy to miss


By Aria Bendix

Country singer Toby Keith died Monday night at age 62, more than two years after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

In June 2022, Keith announced on X that he had been diagnosed in fall 2021 and had already received chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. 

Then last June, he told The Oklahoman newspaper of Oklahoma City that his tumor had shrunk by a third and that he was continuing chemotherapy. He also received immunotherapy, he said — medicine that helps the immune system destroy cancer cells.

His death has sparked renewed calls from doctors to pay attention to signs of stomach cancer, which include heartburn, acid reflux, anemia, nausea, ulcers, pain after eating, sudden weight loss or feeling full after eating small amounts.

“A lot of these things are relatively innocuous. But of course with a cancer, that’s how it gets you,” said Dr. Fabian Johnston, the division chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Johnston said doctors and patients may be inclined to dismiss symptoms like acid reflux as harmless, which can delay diagnoses. By the time symptoms appear, many already have advanced disease, he said.

The average age of diagnosis is 68, and men have a slightly higher risk. 

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 27,000 new cases of stomach cancer will be diagnosed this year, though the disease is still relatively rare: It makes up around 1.5% of new cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

Overall rates of stomach cancer diagnoses have also declined slightly over the last 10 years. But rates among adults younger than 50 are rising, for reasons that aren’t clear.

“There’s something that’s going on — something we’re eating, something we’re ingesting, some combination of factors that’s modern and present — which is resulting in these increased cancers in young people,” said Dr. Ben Schlechter, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Schlechter said alcohol and tobacco — once common contributors to stomach cancer — are now associated with a minority of cases in the U.S., perhaps because people are smoking less.

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