Stomach Cancer Survivor
|Ritsuko Hamai, Seattle, Washington|
Since she was a young teenager, Ritsuko Hamai has had stomach problems. But the problems she began experiencing in early 2007 was different. “So I kind of knew something was wrong,” she says, “but never cancer. I never thought it was cancer related.”
On March 15, 2007, Ritsuko (who goes by Ree), got the news from her doctor. She had stomach cancer.
“It’s funny,” Ree says, “but I thought maybe my doctor was wrong. So I told her: ‘Um, maybe you’re reading somebody else’s report. Maybe it’s not me.”
Ree was 37 when she was diagnosed. “And I wasn’t ready to die. I never thought about getting sick with a life-threatening disease,” she says.
After several tests, it appeared that Ree’s cancer had spread to her liver. Her doctor staged her disease at Stage IV and referred her to a surgeon for treatment. The surgeon she saw told her that he was sorry—he could do nothing for her.
“So that moment was probably the worst moment I have experienced in my life,” Ree says. “I was scared and in such shock.”
She then went to see an oncologist. “And he was pretty calm, pretty positive,” Ree says, “but when I asked him if I could have kids in the future, he said, well let’s not think about long term like that. And that really hurt me. I got what he meant. He meant I won’t make it. So, after that I was just quiet. I just did not know what to do or what to say.”
With her partner’s help, Ree decided that she couldn’t give up. They began to research cancer centers. They called and e-mailed friends and family members. “There were many people who recommended that I go to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance,” Ree says. “So we called SCCA and made an appointment with medical oncologist Dr. Samuel Whiting.”
Ree found Dr. Whiting to be very approachable, positive, and instinctively in touch with the type of person she is. “I work hard,” Ree says, “and I get motivated very easily, and I do my best to make the situation better. And I think he got that.”
Dr. Whiting introduced Ree to his team of nurses and told her that she, his patient, was actually his boss. “Instead of him telling me that I have to do this, this, and this, he made me feel like I was the boss. And I was getting helped by his team so I got more motivated.”
He presented Ree with three options for treatment and together they decided she would have the strongest chemotherapy she could tolerate first to stop the cancer from growing and reduce her tumors’ size, and then have surgery to find out where the cancer may have spread. Unfortunately, they couldn’t tell how far her cancer had spread otherwise, except through surgery.
“Dr. Whiting was very, very supportive,” Ree says. “He called me on weekends. And he always wanted to make sure that I was eating well, that I was taking a walk. And he never ignored me or treated me as if I was lower than him. He was always on the same level. And he never had an attitude of ‘oh I am a doctor you have to listen to me.’ He was always always encouraging me, saying Ree, you’re almost there; you know you can do it. So I was very happy about having him as my doctor. “
All along, Ree felt she was going to beat her cancer. But there were two occasions that helped firm her convictions. The first was the hope that a friend of hers gave her. Her friend wasn’t willing to accept that nothing could be done and she helped push Ree to learn more about how Western and Eastern medicine might work to help her, or changing her diet or taking up meditation.
“When you hear positive opinions you are like, ‘OK, maybe.’ So that was the first time that I felt like there might be a way I would make it,” Ree says.
The second time for Ree came after her surgery. No one knew the extent of her disease completely, and wouldn’t until she had surgery.
“On June 19, 2007, about three months after I was diagnosed the surgeon explained that he would open me up, look inside, take a biopsy from my liver, and if the biopsy was positive he would close me up because there would be nothing he could do. But, if the biopsy was negative, he could cut part of my stomach or my whole stomach out and take the cancer out.”
So the day of her surgery was one of the biggest days of Ree’s life. Her surgery was over five hours long and the first thing Ree did when she woke up from anesthesia was look at the clock. “I knew that if the surgery was long, that meant they did something on my stomach. But if it was short, they just closed me up.”
Looking at the clock, Ree realized the surgery was long which meant her cancer hadn’t spread.
“I had hope,” Ree says thinking back to that moment before she fell asleep again. “That day I knew there were things that I could do to cure my cancer.”
Ree is grateful to the many people who helped her during treatment—even people she didn’t know from her friend’s church who made her a large quilt.
“You know, when you’re healthy, you never think how precious it is to be normal. How precious it is to be able to eat and to be able to walk and to be able to just to do things that you usually do,” Ree says. “I totally took things for granted when I was healthy. And then I got sick, and I realized, oh, you know, I should never take advantage, take things for granted.”
Though she feels she can never fully repay the people who gave her so much support during her treatment, she hopes she can help other people in a similar way. “For cancer patients, I can tell them that you don’t have to be scared. And there are ways to make you feel better or cure your cancer. And I want to let healthy people know to please not take things for granted. It’s important to appreciate what you have instead of complaining about things all the time.”