Grafton High School Has No Stomach For Cancer
Posted on November 27, 2013, 2:00 AM
By Beth Lambert
I have been teaching English at Grafton High School in Grafton, Massachusetts for 20 years. So when my brother Steve was diagnosed with stage-4 stomach cancer in 2005, it was inevitable that my students would notice something was up. On days of a critical surgery, or as Steve’s health was failing, I sometimes found myself having to miss a day of school to be by his side. I did not go out of my way to share all of the details about his illness or condition with my students, but they knew that I was going through a difficult time. I cannot tell you how touched I was when Steve passed away on November 21, 2006, and I found myself flooded with support and love from my students and the rest of the school community.
My journey with stomach cancer did not end there. Over the summer break of 2007, I learned that Steve’s cancer was caused by a genetic mutation (CDH1) that actually causes three cancers: stomach, breast, and colon. This condition is known as Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer syndrome (HDGC). During that summer, the rest of my siblings and I were tested; three of the four of us tested positive for the CDH1 mutation. As there is no effective screening mechanism for this diffuse stomach cancer, the recommended course of action was the entire removal of the stomach.
People have asked if having our stomachs removed as a precaution was a difficult decision to make. Perhaps surprisingly, it was an extremely easy decision. We knew by not having it done we were at a very high risk (83%) of developing stomach cancer. We had just watched Steve suffer a very painful death, and we did not want to have to go through what he did. The decision was unanimous: we would all have the surgery in the fall.
When I returned to school in 2007, I shared with my students that I would be out for part of the year because of the surgery. They wrote cards, made food, and sent encouraging e-mails while I recovered. When I returned to teaching, they understood that I was adjusting to a life-changing procedure and that I needed them to be flexible, and they were; they were great!
In 2010, I became involved on the Board of Directors of No Stomach For Cancer. That same year, No Stomach For Cancer worked with the US Senate to pass a Resolution that established November as Stomach Cancer Awareness Month. It was exciting to know that there would be a time designated formally to raise awareness, and it was our hope that we could make a difference.
Meanwhile, my mom Mary Walsh, the person who initially tested positive for the genetic marker in our family, had been diagnosed for a second time with colon cancer caused by this CDH1 mutation. She entered the hospital on July 22, 2010, and her prognosis was not good. After fighting as long as her body could, she died on November 21, 2010, four years to the day that my brother Steve died from stomach cancer. I was devastated. Not surprisingly, the Grafton High School community showed its incredible support as they had in the past, and has continued to do so.
Over the past four years, so much has happened to raise awareness and funds for this disease. One student created a PowerPoint presentation about stomach cancer that ran in the school lobby during a week designated as Stomach Cancer Awareness Week and during parent conferences. Other students sold wristbands, t-shirts, and raffle tickets before school, at football games, and parent conferences. For the past two years, the Grafton High School community, including students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents, alumni, and residents of Grafton, participated in the worldwide No Stomach For Cancer Walk, held the first Saturday each November to kick off Stomach Cancer Awareness Month. This year’s Walk raised over $1,500 that will go toward stomach cancer awareness efforts and research.
I cannot tell you how proud I am to be a teacher and how humbling it is to see the entire school community help with a cause that is so personal to me. When I see my former student Rebeccah Quist, who has become involved with No Stomach For Cancer, putting her willingness to help and writing talents to work, I am reminded of the privilege of teaching and the impact we can make on one another.
As I have watched the students participate in different activities during Stomach Cancer Awareness Month over the years, I have wondered if maybe – just maybe – one of them will be the future doctor who will find a cure for stomach cancer.
Beth Lambert is Board Chair of No Stomach For Cancer, a 501 3c non-profit focused on raising awareness about stomach cancer. She has been a full-time English teacher at Grafton High School in Grafton, Massachusetts for the past 20 years. She lives in Worcester, Massachusetts with her husband Paul and sons Paul Jr., 13, and Matthew, 9.
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