Davie woman determined to beat stomach cancer

Debbie Zelman stood at the podium in her seafoam green ball gown, urged the audience at her foundation’s fifth annual gala to continue to support stomach cancer research, and then spilled her news: Her stomach cancer had come back.

Zelman, a Davie mother of three who beat the odds by surviving more than six years after being given a deadly diagnosis, spoke eloquently to the audience at the April event: “You all know I’m a fighter and I’m not about to give up now.’’

Then, she explained that she had temporarily moved to Houston to undergo an aggressive, five-week treatment of intensive radiation and chemotherapy, but was determined to come to the annual gala. “For those of you who know me well, you know that I wasn’t about to miss this night that honors all of you, who are just as sick of cancer as I am.’’

With that, the audience burst into applause and showed its commitment to the cause. By the end of the night, the fundraiser had brought in another $300,000 to fund stomach cancer research. Without dispute, Zelman has shown determination. She was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer in 2008 and founded Debbie’s Dream Foundation the following year.

At the same time she has powered through personal treatments, she has done more to eradicate stomach cancer than anyone thought possible. Debbie’s Dream Foundation: Curing Stomach Cancer has raised millions of dollars for cancer research, spun off 19 national chapters, and created an annual Stomach Cancer Education Symposium that attracts hundreds of people.

Stomach cancer, while smaller in numbers than some other cancers, packs a powerful punch. According to the American Cancer Society, the overall five-year survival rate for people with stomach cancer in the United States is about 28 percent and the five-year survival rate for stage IV stomach cancer like Zelman’s is only 4 percent.

Awareness of stomach cancer, its symptoms, and risk factors remains low despite the fact that it is one of the deadliest cancers. Per cancer death, stomach cancer receives the least amount of federal funding of any cancer. Chances for developing stomach cancer are still very low in young adults but the incidence among 25- to 39-year-old whites climbed by almost 70 percent in the past three decades, a study by the National Cancer Institute has found.

Stomach cancer symptoms often include abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing, a bloated feeling and swelling in the abdomen. Since symptoms of stomach cancer often do not appear until the disease is advanced, only about 1 in 5 stomach cancers in the United States are found at an early stage, before it has spread to other areas of the body — which is what makes it so fatal.

In the past five years, Zelman and her organization have made progress in raising awareness, funding research and providing patient support.

One of its biggest accomplishments is the organization’s annual Education Symposium held in South Florida, which draws doctors, radiologists, patients, families and caregivers who ask questions and share the newest information and treatments for stomach cancer. This year, more than 125 people attended in person, and it was webcast live around the world, attracting another 150 participants.

William Blackstock, a Professor of Radiation Oncology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, attended the fourth annual Stomach Cancer Education Symposium in April and said his big takeaway this year was learning about the new advances in potential treatments. “With next generation drugs, it might become more of a chronic disease. We would like there to be much more hope for those stomach cancer patients.”

Zelman said this year the symposium’s speakers addressed side-effect management, clinical trial updates, and information on integrative medicine. The event also included its first patient panel who discussed their varied treatments. “That was very important because it provided hope to others,’’ Zelman said.

Meanwhile, advocates want legislators to know more about the disease and provide more funding for research. Last month, advocates for Debbie’s Dream Foundation traveled to Washington, D.C., for the second annual stomach cancer advocacy day. The advocates represented 16 states and participated in more than 70 congressional meetings to lobby for increased funding for stomach cancer research.

Attorney David Kubiliun, who chaired the Debbie’s Dream Foundation Gala this year, also participated in the advocacy day. Kubiliun said traveling to Washington, D.C., alongside stomach cancer patients was the most rewarding endeavor of his professional career. “It was affirmation that all our efforts are making a tremendous impact on the road to finding a cure for stomach cancer,’’ he said.

To support research, Debbie’s Dream Foundation presented a $50,000 research grant at its April gala to David Allison, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine. Allison said he sees the lack of stomach cancer research as a gap he wants to fill. Allison said the one-year grant will allow him to get other researchers interested in the field and build the foundation to move stomach cancer research forward over the next five years. His plan is to study a particular enzyme that is hyperactive in many cancers and establish it as a potential target for chemotherapeutics. “If I accomplish what I set out to, I will establish how effective targeting the enzyme is in slowing the growth rate of stomach cancer cells.’’

Zelman said Debbie’s Dream Foundation selected Allison for his potential: “We need to inspire bright minds to stay in the stomach cancer research field.’’

In her personal battle, Zelman said she remains strong because she has no other option: She’s determined to keep the disease manageable and be present for her children. She has met other stomach cancer patients who get desperate and try fad diets or quick fix treatments that aggravate their situation. Until the recent recurrence, Zelman has been able to keep the disease under control by a targeted chemotherapy and pharmaceutical regimen. “You have to ask questions, make smart decisions and follow up on everything.’’