According to the American Cancer Society, stomach cancer accounts for about 1.5 percent of all new cancers diagnosed in the United States each year. In 2022, about 26,500 new cases of stomach cancer were diagnosed in the United States. More than half of those survived.
In January, I found myself having a kind of church with four stomach cancer survivors. All four ladies, networked together by a web of acquaintances through work, through church, and through life, had been assigned on the same journey toward surviving stomach cancer.
Just like a good church service, we did a lot of “amen-agreeing” and we praised God and His Son Jesus for allowing these women of faith more life to tell their story.
But mostly, they sang praises for each other, because in many ways, they helped each other to get to where they all are today – survivors, with cancer in their rear-view. And now, they know that their stories of survival are their testimony. They want others everywhere to hear these stories, to feel the power of God, of sisterhood, and of friendship, and to know that they are enough to lead someone through a cancer diagnosis. Because it happened to them.
Cancer came for them in waves…
Like two decades ago, when Mary Anna Thomas was set to retire from her service to the City of Paducah and wanted one more chance to take advantage of her free annual physical. During that, an endoscopy found a spot on her stomach, which led to a full removal of that organ and rounds of chemotherapy and radiation after.
And for Millette Milliken, who woke up Easter weekend in 2010 expecting to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but instead, found herself in the hospital with a rare type of stomach cancer in a nodule.
And for Debbie Sanders, who self-medicated, changed her diet, and even got an ulcer diagnosis from her primary doctor, finally saw an endocrinologist and left with the realization that she had adenocarcinoma, stomach cancer stage three.
And for Reverend Dr. Bernice (Stewart) Belt, who discovered her second cancer in 2022, this time with a diagnosis of stomach cancer. Reverend Belt’s stomach had to be revoked to preserve her life.
For each lady, they say that God was there from the very first moment in their cancer journey.
“What if I had I not gone to get that physical?” Mary Anna recalls. “God was in it all the way through, walking me through the steps that I took.”
“My oncologist said to me after that, he didn’t think I was going to make it and I just pointed upward and said that I knew who was with me,” she says. “I believe I am a walking testimony. My faith was strong enough to know that God was going to pull me through.”
“Every step that I went through I knew that God was there,” she says. “God was there.”
But, do you know who else was there for them? Some of them, barely connected during their diagnoses, were all of a sudden a friendly face in storm, a reason to believe, and a source of hope.
Right after her diagnosis, Debbie’s mom reminded her that Millette had also suffered from stomach cancer.
“I immediately called her and I remember that I was shaking and I couldn’t even talk,” Debbie says. “She said to me, ‘Just take your time Debbie and tell me what it is.’”
“Then she gave me insight and she didn’t sugar coat anything,” she recalls. “She told me what I would be facing throughout chemo, the surgery, and how I could get through the entire journey. She gave me prayer and scripture.”
“I knew then that I was going to make it.”
Millette connected Debbie to Mary Anna, who Debbie calls Mrs. Thomas because she grew up with her daughter and that’s what ladies with nice manners call their elders.
“Mrs. Thomas had her whole stomach removed also and without her I wouldn’t have had the courage to go through it,” Debbie says.
Talking with these two survivors gave Debbie a picture of a future that seemed so vague at the time.
“Through them, I could see someone that was like me that was going through this,” she says. “On the internet, I couldn’t find anyone like us, being black, being a woman. I just needed to see someone like me get through it.”
And the support didn’t stop there.
“In the hospital, Millette came to see me, prayed with me, and I knew I was going to be okay,” Debbie says.
“If I didn’t have the family and friends that I have, I wouldn’t have made it,” she says. “In my darkest moments when I felt alone or if the devil was creeping in my head, I would get a text from Millette, Mrs. Thomas, and from family and friends saying that they were praying for me. Those moments made a lot of difference.”
For Mary Anna and Millette, rallying around Debbie echoed the support they had provided each other during their battles.
“My parents had worked with Mary Anna and my mom told me that she was a stomach cancer survivor, so when I was diagnosed, I reached out to her through my journey,” Millette remembers. “God allowed me to be here, so I feel like it’s necessary to give back. When Debbie called, it was an opportunity to share with her that she would get through it too.”
And now, with their stomach cancer finally in their past, the women say they are still here for each other and for any other who hears the word cancer and fears the worst.
If that’s you, or someone you love, hear their advice.
“Look at me and let me be your testimony that cancer is not a death sentence,” Mary Anna says. “We’re gonna walk this together. I’m here to walk with you.”
“I don’t have 10 or 12 years behind me, but I know I will,” Debbie says.
“Just believe there is power in prayer in the name of Jesus. I had people praying all over the world. I didn’t keep this to myself. I wanted every prayer I could get. I believe there is power in prayer and that’s how I made it through.”
Millette says that trusting God’s process through a cancer journey is paramount.
“There’s a lot more to the journey than just going through it,” she says.
And Reverend Belt, well, you can tell that she’s delivered whole sermons about the power of love support through cancer.
“I am thankful that we all survived and are still surviving and are willing to talk about it because there are many people who have different types of cancer that, for some reason, are embarrassed to talk about it,” she says. “They don’t understand how powerful their testimony is – powerful enough to be used by God to save lives.”
“If you are scared of cancer, call me, and we’re gonna talk. I’m gonna be there for you like people were there for me.”
“There are so many people ready to lift you up. The love of God is everywhere. There are so many people who love God, who love God’s people unconditionally, who will reach out from anywhere in the world to say something or do something to lift you up.”
And she perhaps says it best.
“That’s where we all are today – standing on the promises of God, with each other, and for each other.”