Hope for Stomach Cancer recently caught up with Melinda Chiu, a stage four stomach cancer warrior. Originally a native New Yorker, Melinda was living on the beautiful island of St. Maarten for 31 years prior to her diagnosis. This is her story of hope and perseverance.
Q: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. Can you please tell us about yourself along with how you received your stomach cancer diagnosis?
A: I spent most of my life living on St. Maarten, a beautiful 36 square mile Dutch/French island in the Caribbean. It is there that I met my husband, a mega-yacht captain (think “Below Deck”), and where I co-founded the island’s first yoga studio. We have 11-year-old boy/girl twins.
St. Maarten is known for its beautiful beaches, turquoise water, and island culture. However, it is still considered to be a third-world country. When I began having some acid reflux in Dec 2020 I visited an island doctor but didn’t receive all the answers that I needed. At the time, my symptoms were very mild. Aside from the occasional reflux I was belching a lot and started to become increasingly bloated. Initially, they treated me for parasites, but this didn’t make a difference.
Further testing and doctor’s visits
The doctor performed 2 endoscopies, 6 weeks apart in his office. These showed an “ulcer” that had gotten worse. The doctor told us that I would need surgery regardless if it was a chronic ulcer or a cancer tumor. He then took biopsies and recommended I go to the local hospital where they would remove part of my stomach.
Not wanting third-world surgery for obvious reasons, I boarded a plane 3 days later with our kids and came to NY for a second opinion. At that point in time, I assumed I would come to NY, take care of what was happening and return home within a few short weeks. Unfortunately, it’s been almost 1 ½ years since we’ve been able to return home again.
Receiving the stomach cancer diagnosis in New York
I grew up in New York, so it seemed natural to go home for a second opinion where I knew I could receive first-world medical treatment from the best of the best.
Scans and tests revealed that I indeed had stomach cancer. I was officially diagnosed in June 2021. I wasn’t completely surprised by the diagnosis. By this point, I’d been vomiting up undigested food and dealing with severe bloating. I knew that I had ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen). I was shocked, though, to discover that I had stage four stomach cancer. How could I have late-stage cancer with so few symptoms? The primary cancer was in my stomach, but it had spread beyond that to the point where it was inoperable. It was then that we knew we would need to stay in NY for the foreseeable future.
Once I learned this information, I didn’t want to know anything about my prognosis – I simply wanted to focus on healing and going forward.
Q: It would be shocking to receive that news. Now that you knew what you were up against, how did doctors approach your treatment?
A: Unfortunately I was not a candidate for surgery and began a long course of palliative chemotherapy. My first line of treatment was the then newly approved Keynote 811 which I did very well on for 8 months. The results were promising at first: we were seeing significant shrinkage and I was managing the side effects pretty well.
I had some bizarre side effects, including extreme sensitivity to cold. Picking up anything cold caused a sharp painful sensation in my hands, and eating cold items gave my mouth a “hairy” feeling. I have painless neuropathy in my fingers and toes which I am treating with acupuncture, magnesium lotion massages, and inferred light pads. For mouth sores, I use a CBD/THC tincture that eliminates them almost immediately.
With some of the treatments I was on, a side effect is alopecia. In an effort to avoid complete hair loss, I tried the Paxman Scalp Cooling. During the process, a machine pumps ice-cold water through a cap. The water forces the veins in your head to constrict, so less of the chemo drugs reach your scalp. These treatments have allowed me to avoid total hair loss so far!
Trying other treatments
Unfortunately, the cancer started to metastasize. It spread to my bones and ovaries. I also had a growth on my hip that was affecting my ability to walk. The inflammation from my primary located close to my pyloric sphincter had caused a complete obstruction. This would not allow any food to pass. I had an expandable mesh stent placed to keep the pyloris open. However, benign tissue kept growing over it so I had to have 2 more stents placed.
Most recently, I had been on Paclitaxel/Ramucitumab. However, the return of ascites indicated that the treatments were no longer working. This week I started a clinical trial that is targeting a certain mutation my Gardant 360 test showed. After 35 chemo treatments, it is nice to have a break.
My family’s experience
As you would expect, a cancer diagnosis dramatically affects any family. On top of dealing with stage 4 stomach cancer and everything that comes with it, we have unfortunately had many other challenges. Originally I anticipated only being away from home for a few weeks. With my diagnosis, though, we knew I needed to stay in NY if we were going to succeed in fighting this.
Not only did we need to find a place to live, but the kids also had to be enrolled in school. We had to purchase absolutely everything, we didn’t even own a pair of socks as we live in flip-flops at home! On top of this, my husband is a British citizen and illegal in the USA so we have applied for his Green Card. This restricts him from working or traveling outside the USA until it is approved. Needless to say, living off savings for 18 months and not being able to travel back home to deal with our properties, 3 dogs, cat, and bunny has added much stress to this already stressful situation.
Still, through all this, we remain positive and also appreciative that we can all be together as a family. Our kids are doing well and enjoying discovering first-world living which is a big relief to my husband and me. Yes, we have our hardships, but we still feel fortunate and grateful for all the positive things.
Without my incredible husband who always makes sure the kids and I are never uncomfortable, not even for a second to my truly amazing friends, things would be a lot different for me.
What the future looks like
What I have learned thus far about this journey is that you have to remain positive, surround yourself with a great support team, and don’t stay still. You have to be your own advocate. Question everything and know that you have choices! There are some incredible people within our Hope for Stomach Cancer community who work tirelessly and selflessly with the sole intention of helping. I have the utmost respect for these individuals and professionals and thank them from the bottom of my heart!
Q: You’ve had an inspiring journey so far as you’ve fought stage four stomach cancer. What is your hope for the future?
A: Above all, I need to keep fighting so that I can be here for my kids and husband. I am a stage four stomach cancer fighter, and my goal is to be around long enough to enjoy a good ole Rum Punch with my kids when they turn 21! When I look back at my life, I’m grateful for all I’ve experienced. I’ve lived a wonderful life full of unforgettable adventures, experiences, and relationships. I need to continue doing this for many years to come!