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Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that readers do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet they still wish to understand how the results will influence their clinical practice or research. To address this need, we offer podcasts that will enhance the readership experience by presenting the key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format. Our podcasts are designed to place selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that is easy to listen to in the office or while on the road.

Life is busy, and it’s hard to get it all done during business hours! Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that you do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet you wish to understand how the results will influence your clinical practice or research. JCO After Hours is a podcast intended to enhance the readership experience by presenting key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format, placing selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that you can listen to in the office or on the road.

Feb 8, 2024

Dr. Shannon Westin and her guests, Dr. Jeremy Davis and patient advocate Kathryn Carr, discuss the paper "Costs of Cancer Prevention: Physical and Psychosocial Sequelae of Risk-Reducing Total Gastrectomy" recently published and printed in the JCO.


Shannon Westin: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of JCO After Hours, the podcast where we get in depth on manuscripts that are published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. I am your host, Shannon Westin, a professor of GYN Oncology at MD Anderson, and the JCO social media editor. I am so thrilled to have wonderful authors here today who do not have any conflicts of interest. We are going to be discussing the “Costs of Cancer Prevention: Physical and Psychosocial Sequelae of Risk-Reducing Total Gastrectomy.” This was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology online on October 30, 2023, and in print on February 1st, 2024. 

And I am excited. I am accompanied by the lead author, Dr. Jeremy Davis, who is an Associate Professor and Surgical Oncologist at the NIH, National Cancer Institute Intramural Research Program. Welcome, Dr. Davis. 

Dr. Jeremy Davis: Thank you.

Shannon Westin: If it is okay with you, I'll call you Jeremy.

Dr. Jeremy Davis: Yes, please. 

Shannon Westin: Fabulous. We also have patient advocate Kathryn Carr, who is a board member for No Stomach for Cancer. Welcome, Kathryn.

Kathryn Carr: Thank you so much. 

Shannon Westin: So let's get right into it. I think this is really thought-provoking work. First, I'd love to level set. So this was work around hereditary diffuse gastric cancer syndrome. Can we get a little bit of information about what causes this and how common it is?

Dr. Jeremy Davis: So, hereditary diffuse gastric cancer syndrome, also referred to as the diffuse gastric cancer and lobular breast cancer syndrome, is basically early-onset diffuse gastric cancer and in women, lobular type breast cancer attributed to germline mutations in the CDH1 gene. If we look at all cases of gastric cancer in the United States, only about 1-3% may be considered hereditary in nature. But when we do study hereditary causes of cancer, it is by far the most common one that we are aware of.

Shannon Westin: What is the likelihood that someone who is a carrier of a germline CDH1 variant will develop gastric cancer?

Dr. Jeremy Davis: That's a good question. Early on, when the syndrome was first described, the estimates of cancer risk were quite high, probably upwards of 70-80%. The good news is that more current estimates published in the last few years suggest that that risk in a lifetime is probably in the 25-40% range. It’s interesting, we do have our own data that are under review right now, where in some families where there’s no history of stomach cancer, that risk of stomach cancer in a lifetime getting a CDH1 mutation might be as low as 10%. So I think the takeaway is that there’s clearly a spectrum and that spectrum of risk is probably based on factors that we don’t quite yet understand.

Shannon Westin: What are the options for management of this hereditary syndrome, really focusing on the gastric cancer syndrome portion today? How good does it do to reduce the risk?

Dr. Jeremy Davis: The options are really two. One is probably the prevailing recommendation that most people would be aware of, is to prophylactically remove the stomach, and we choose to use the term most often ‘risk-reducing gastrectomy’, but to remove the entire stomach and really eliminate the risk of cancer from ever developing. The other option is enhanced surveillance, and people might think of this as akin to other high risk cancer syndromes. But for this we would do yearly or annual endoscopic surveillance. Many people think that that may not be the best option, but it is certainly an option. We discussed some of that in the paper about what are the risks and benefits of gastrectomy, and then what may be the benefit of enhanced surveillance for some people.

Shannon Westin: Well, I would love to hear Kathryn. I think this is a perfect opportunity to hear a little bit about your journey with carrying this variant, as much as you are willing to share with our listeners.

Kathryn Carr: Yeah, absolutely. So I found out that I have this spicy little gene back in 2019. My whole family got tested so the gene comes down from my paternal great grandmother. There are five of us who actually all had our stomachs removed by Dr. Davis. Within a year, he had five Carr stomachs. For me when I found out, I was extremely overwhelmed. I mean, “You want to take my stomach out? Like, what do you mean?” But after talking to Dr. Davis and his entire care team, I knew for me, having the total gastrectomy was the only option simply because I know my personality type enough that I was not going to be able to move forward with life unless I got rid of this overwhelming worry.

Shannon Westin: Yeah, I think that makes sense. I'm a GYN oncologist by trade, so I often reference all things surgery around that. We have the same thing when we talk about risk-reducing surgeries for endometrial and ovarian cancers. This seems more like what we do in Lynch syndrome, where patients are at risk for endometrial cancer. Removal of the uterus is almost definitive in its ability to reduce that risk, but it's obviously a very large surgery. Jeremy, can you review the gastrectomy in general? What are the most common short-term and long-term adverse events? What did you have to discuss with Kathryn and her five family members around what they could expect from this surgery?

Dr. Jeremy Davis: Yeah, I think this is a great question because it's the thing at the top of most patients' minds. When I sit down to talk to somebody about gastrectomy, usually a lot of the conversation initially centers around ‘how long does the operation take, how long am I at the hospital, and what are the most likely risks of the operation?’ The good news is that as operations go, it can be done in two to three hours, and most people are in the hospital for maybe five to seven days. The risks of this operation, however, at least during the operation or immediately afterward have to do with how we have to reconnect everything and reconnecting the intestine to the esophagus so that people can continue to eat. Because I think a lot of people wonder, "Well, how am I going to eat?” The stomach's gone, but we recreate intestinal continuity. We put things back together in a way that people can eat and absorb their food. 

But that connection we make between the esophagus and intestine is almost like the Achilles heel of this operation. It's the one thing that keeps surgeons up at night, and it's probably the one thing that causes the most trouble in terms of immediate risks, like leaking. If that connection leaks, it can lead to infection. There are other aspects of the operation that relate to any kind of intestinal surgery, such as leakage, blockage, or narrowing or something like that. So these are the things you need to worry about in the short term. But you mentioned the long-term consequences, and that was really one of the reasons why we wrote the paper. If you look in the literature, the focus is on the acute problems, things that happen within 30, 60, or 90 days of the operation. Which, yes, those are very, very important. But since we're talking about an operation that's supposed to prevent cancer and therefore allow the patient to live a long and happy life, I think it's important for us to think about what happens well beyond the time that the patient essentially heals from the operation. 

Shannon Westin: It's so critical. And I think before we go into the work that you did and what you all found, Kathryn, I would love to get your perspective. Having gone through the procedure, what was your experience? Give us as little or as much detail as you want, whatever you're comfortable with. But also, what did you wish you had known? What surprises kind of came up during the course? 

Kathryn Carr: I'm going to quote Rachel, who works with Dr. Davis at the NIH. She's the clinical dietitian. And my question to her was, "Seeing all the patients you've seen and knowing all that you know, what would be the advice that you would give me?" She told me to have the patience to get through the first year. I think that really set my expectation of, "Okay, this is not just a surgery where in a week or two weeks I’m going to be up skipping along." It is a marathon. I really worked hard with Dr. Davis in the hospital. I'm allergic to everything. I was convinced that my spleen was erupting. I think I scared many fellows, and they were like, "That's actually not where your spleen is. It's fine. You're okay. Stop getting on WebMD." But once I got home, those first eight weeks, they’re hard. There were several moments where I would just sit and stare off into space and think, "Oh my gosh, what have I done?" But for me when Dr. Davis called to tell me the pathology report and that they did find some signet cells, I was 100% sure that I made the right decision. I would have been worried every second of every day that my body was going to turn on me. So once I kind of had that relief, it was like, "Okay, my body can do this. We're built to do hard things." Then it was just getting through the first six months, learning what I could eat, what I couldn't eat, working with Rachel on different strategies of, “Okay, I’m going to maximize my protein in the morning and then maybe get a little more adventurous as the day goes on.”

But what I wish I had known before surgery, because I'm a planner, I want everything scheduled and figured out. I was in the hospital, I had a different outfit for every day, and I just wanted it to go perfectly. I think taking away the expectations of what your journey is going to look like would be the best advice I could go back and give myself. Because I am very competitive, and my dad and I were separated by seven months of this surgery. He can do things that I still can't do, and that's okay. Everyone's healing journey is going to look very different because everybody is going to respond incredibly different. It's like the body is doing roll call and the stomach is nowhere to be found, and everybody is going to respond totally differently to that.

Shannon Westin: That's so insightful. I really appreciate that. 

I guess now it's a good time to turn to the work that you did, Jeremy, and you kind of already hinted at what your objectives were, but can you maybe walk through your primary objectives in the way you designed the study.

Dr. Jeremy Davis: You know, I think as somebody who trained to take care of people with cancer and do big operations to cure people, this was a little bit of a different experience in the beginning for me. Because here I was taking ostensibly normal people - Kathryn may argue with that statement - but normal people, and I was going to take them to the operating room and do something to them to prevent a problem. And this is not a minor thing, it's a big deal. What I learned pretty quickly was how much I was disrupting people's lives. And what I mean by that is that a patient comes to clinic three or six months after surgery. We all document the typical things. They are healing well, they are recovering as expected, their incisions are healed and all this stuff. But it was the stuff that didn't always go down in the medical record. The comments that the patients made to my team, the nurses, the dietitian, about how their lives were being disrupted. And this started to change my viewpoint on, “Oh my goodness, we're paying attention to important things, but we're really not paying attention to what's happening.” So, the idea behind the study was really to explore those consequences that don't get talked about a lot. That was the nature of the idea behind the study. It was easy enough for us to conduct the study because my research at the NIH is about gastric cancer, but more specifically, this hereditary form of gastric cancer. We have a natural history study that allows us to follow people for a long time, not just within three or six months of surgery, and then we're done. So that longitudinal aspect of the study is really what allowed us to accomplish that.

Shannon Westin: What I thought was really interesting here is how many different types of questionnaires you were able to utilize to really assess beyond kind of the straightforward quality of life Yes/No. Can you speak a little bit about some of the questionnaires you chose and why? 

Dr. Jeremy Davis: My concern going into this was that I had read a lot of the literature related to quality of life after gastrectomy for gastric cancer. There are certainly these validated questionnaires out there. And my sense was, having read those questions and papers, that those validated typical questionnaires- I'm referring to the FACT-G or the FACT-Ga might not capture the things that we wanted to capture. So, I spoke to our palliative care service here at the NIH clinical center, which is the hospital here on campus in Bethesda. They had developed a questionnaire many years ago that they called the NIH HEALS or Healing Experience of All Life Stressors. They designed that to identify stress causing changes associated with chronic illness. You might argue that having a germline mutation that puts you at risk for cancer is kind of a chronic condition. So, we thought we would use that. 

And then the last part was we just sat around the table and we thought, “Well, jeez, what are all these things that people are telling us that would never be captured in almost any questionnaire?” And that's when we designed a series of questions that we thought were relevant to our patient population because we wanted to capture all the things that people had told us. Those were things like, “I had to change my job because I couldn't do the same work anymore, right?” Or, “My partner, our relationship changed substantially, and we grew apart, and we ultimately got divorced.” How do you capture that? So that's how we designed it. We basically looked at all the patients that we had done the prophylactic gastrectomy on and applied all of those validated and unvalidated questionnaires.

Shannon Westin: That's so great. And I bet, Kathryn, you participated quite a bit in that, in addition to other people in the study.

Kathryn Carr: I did, and I'm so grateful that Dr. Davis is doing this study because it is so important to look at what life is like without a stomach. You have this immediate thought of, “Okay, I just want to save my life. I want to make my life longer. But how is it going to change my life? How is it going to alter my day-to-day?” Because even Dr. Davis has said it would be weird if it didn't change your life. I mean, you're taking away a very important piece of the puzzle. So, I think this study is going to help people make more accurate decisions. I don't doubt my decision to have my gastrectomy at all, but this is beautiful information just so that you can be more well-prepared to walk into the surgery of, “Okay, now I have a very clear understanding of what my life could look like.”

I've been very fortunate that I have not had a lot of the physical problems. I don't deal with a lot of bile reflux. My weight has stabilized, so I am very blessed in that way. But emotionally, this has been a really tough surgery. You start to feel misunderstood, like you have to walk into every day being very prepared of, “Okay, every two hours I have to eat something or else I get real hangry, not just a little hungry, real hangry. Also, my body will start to shake.” That's how I get my hunger signal. My whole body will start shaking, which is very scary. It's very unpleasant. I'm almost four years post-op, and so I lean into my schedule and routine. 

One piece of advice for anyone walking into this surgery is to make sure you're anchored in something. For me, my faith anchors me, but if you're not anchored in something that is secure and true, like, you are going to float away, because this is a storm. 

Shannon Westin: Jeremy, do you want to just pass on a few of the key findings? I encourage everyone to read the paper. There are so many different things that were explored and identified as part of this study. It's amazing with the number of patients that were involved, what the depth of the findings was. But perhaps you can kind of hit some of the major high points.

Dr. Jeremy Davis: Yeah, I think the key takeaways for me, and obviously I'm still learning from all of this, is that I think we talk a lot about the surgery, in this case especially, but we don't talk enough about what life is like afterwards. I've started to talk to people about how much you think your stomach plays a role in your life, and you think about how much of our life centers around eating and drinking and holidays and family gatherings. And you have to imagine that means those activities are potentially disrupted. So for me, the key takeaways from this are, number one, we have to be aware. We have to be aware that risk reducing surgery of almost any kind has consequences. Yes, we want it to have a positive impact on the patient, but we have got to be aware of the negative impact. This is like systemic chemotherapy. It can do a lot of good, but toxicities are real. In terms of the specific findings from this study, listen, 94% of people in the study, 126 of people, 94% had some long term consequence. And it wasn't just like some long term, “Oh, I don't like my scar.” No, it was 94% of people had a long term problem, such as “I have daily bile reflux that interferes with my activities of daily living.” Something like that.  

And I think the range of consequences is really important, too. And so, again, they range from things like GI symptoms, which you would imagine would be quite typical for a gastrectomy, but mental health, right? People talking about worsening symptoms of anxiety or depression, some substance abuse. Whether it was alcohol or otherwise, disruptions in relationships, I mentioned earlier, and even occupation change. I can't physically do the job that I used to do. So I think as clinicians, as surgeons that walk into this, yes, we need to focus on the surgery and the immediate consequences, but we also need to think, “How am I going to change this person's life? Not just for the better, but how might I really impair their life in the long term?”

Kathryn Carr: Well, in one, just very simple example. So like going out to eat with people. There's a natural cadence of conversation. I take a bite, you talk and vice versa. But when you're chewing your food to the nth degree it interrupts that natural cadence. I avoid dinner dates because then I have to talk about my stomach on a first date or going out to dinner with friends. It's nice if there's a group of us because then other people can carry the cadence but then you kind of feel left out of the conversation because you're like, “Oh, well. I’ve got to eat, otherwise I'm going to pass out.” So that's just like a very simple, you wouldn't think of, “Okay, I'm going to dinner at 7:30 so I should probably eat a snack before I go because I might not get my food until 8:00 or 8:30.” So it's just like you're constantly thinking about, “Okay, I've got to make sure that I have food in my body. 

Shannon Westin: It’s so critical. 

Well, this has been an awesome discussion and I'm sad that it's coming to a close. I guess just final thoughts around what's next in this space. Like what are you working on now, Jeremy?

Dr. Jeremy Davis: I'm a cancer surgeon and a cancer researcher so my goal is to find a way for us to prevent stomach cancer that doesn't require me having to take out somebody's stomach. So in the laboratory that's what we're doing, right? We're working on finding a way to prevent stomach cancer so that I don't have to do this operation anymore. But on the clinical side of things, the next thing that we're exploring is how do patients think about, talk about, or express concerns to their physicians about reproduction - reproduction in the setting of a cancer predisposition syndrome. And I think that's going to be really important work. 

Shannon Westin: That's great. Kathryn, any thoughts?

Kathryn Carr: I know that being four years out, I'm not like an old timer, but I do just want to help anyone who's at the beginning stages of this journey and just making other patients feel less alone. I told Dr. Davis I just entered the world of TikTok to talk about gastrectomy and just opening up a conversation of what does life without a stomach look like? And just making people feel less alone and more understood throughout this process.

Shannon Westin: Thank you both for the work you're doing, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to JCO After Hours. Again, we were discussing the “Costs of Cancer Prevention: Physical and Psychosocial Sequelae of Risk-Reducing Total Gastrectomy.” Please do not be a stranger to our podcast. Check out our other offerings and reach out to us on X and Instagram if you have other topics you want us to cover. Have an awesome day.

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