No stomach, no problem! Gastrectomy patient another step ahead after marathon

Marne Shafer thought her running days were behind her after she
received a total gastrectomy, a surgical removal of the stomach and
nearby lymph nodes. She braced herself for the worst.

At age 33, the mother of two and experienced marathoner, learned she
has a CDH1 gene mutation, which is associated with high-risk of a rare
type of stomach cancer called hereditary diffuse gastric
cancer, as well as lobular breast cancer.

Marne came to MD Anderson for genetic testing after several family members
passed away from stomach cancer, including her father, grandmother and
aunt. Since screening isn’t successful in identifying the disease in
its early stages, the recommended treatment plan was for Marne to
undergo the prophylactic total gastrectomy. But the surgery revealed
she already had stage I cancer, which was removed during the procedure.

“It seems counterintuitive to feel in full health and then go out
and get your stomach removed,” she says. “People ask, ‘how are you
still alive?’”

Life without a stomach

While she had a feeding tube for nearly two months and worked hard
to get enough nutrients post-surgery, Marne credits her quick recovery
to the expert care provided by her surgeon, Paul Mansfield, M.D., in addition to her history
of running.

“I thought I was supposed to still feel horrible two weeks after my
surgery. I didn’t have a lot of strength, but I didn’t think I would
feel that much better,” she says. “At the end of the day, Dr.
Mansfield is just awesome. He is very personable in addition to being
one of the best doctors in the world. He is extremely knowledgeable,
and he put me at ease about the surgery.”

After her stomach removal, Marne resolved to help others facing
similar situations. She started a blog, Life Without a Stomach, to share her
experiences, including challenges with eating.

Because Marne’s esophagus is connected to her small intestine as a
result of the gastrectomy, she can eat and swallow, but it’s a slower
process. She focuses on eating several small meals packed with protein
and nutrients. “It’s like a forced, healthy diet,” she says.

In addition to blogging, Shafer raises awareness and funds for
stomach cancer research.

“I think I was meant to have this so I can help other people,” she says.

The stomachless runner

Marne’s return to running is another way that she’s inspiring
others, including Dr. Mansfield. Just months after her gastrectomy,
she began training for a half marathon in Houston. Three years later,
on Jan. 15, 2017, she completed the full Chevron Houston Marathon,
coming in just one minute shy of her 3:21 personal record.

“It felt doubly important to run a marathon without a stomach,”
Marne says. “Look what you can do!”

Running the marathon wasn’t without its unique challenges. Marne
experimented during training to see if her body could process sugar
gels used by long-distance runners to boost energy. Throughout the
race, she couldn’t gulp water or sports drinks to remain hydrated.
Instead, she had to pinch the top of the cups and slowly sip while she ran.

She had never been so excited to cross a finish line.

“I had so many people supporting me because they knew what a
milestone it was. Everyone has a meaning for the marathon. For me, not
having a stomach is something that I deal with. Only through your
trials do you understand your strength.”

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