African American women are more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with stomach cancer than others- And, they are 2.4 times as likely to die from the disease. These are statistics Angelica (Nefertiti) Strong knows all too well. The former hip hop artist-turned filmmaker was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2011. Now, the 38-year-old is using her celebrity to shed light on the disease and to raise money to help fight stomach cancer.
“People need to know that it’s more common than most folks are aware of. I had symptoms for two years leading up to my being diagnosed. There needs to be more prevention and awareness,” says Strong, the self-proclaimed “Lance Armstrong of stomach cancer.” Strong, who has undergone surgery, has biweekly rounds of chemotherapy.
“Signs and symptoms should not be ignored. Most of these symptoms may be caused by things other than stomach cancer. They may also occur with other types of cancer. People who have any of these symptoms, especially if they don’t go away or if they worsen, should a doctor to determine the cause and be treated,” adds Beth Lambert of the organization No Stomach For Cancer.
The symptoms include: Loss of appetite; unexplained weight loss; bloating; sense of fullness after eating small amounts of food; abdominal pain or vague discomfort in the abdomen, usually above the navel; heartburn, indigestion or ulcer-type symptoms; nausea; vomiting, with or without blood.
Strong has been holding fundraisers to raise money for the American Cancer Society and to boost awareness. Only about 21,000 Americans are diagnosed with stomach cancer annually. Compare this to the 289,000 who are diagnosed each year with breast cancer. “However, stomach cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Although it is not as prevalent here as compared to other parts of the world, about 22,000 new cases of stomach cancer are estimated to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, and that over 10,000 will die from the disease,” notes Lambert. “The reality is that there isn’t enough awareness about the disease, and as a result it is often diagnosed at a late stage. The five-year survival rate for Stage IV stomach cancer patients is only 4%. Even when detected earlier, the overall 5-year survival rate is still only about 28…Nefertiti embodies what No Stomach For Cancer is all about – passion for the cause and the desire to help others. When we learned of Nefertiti’s struggle with stomach cancer, we contacted her to offer support, and her immediate response was ´let’s work together – we must collaborate.´ Not only is she fighting her own battle, she’s fighting for others as well.”
Strong says she knew her mission was to also help others. “I felt that it would be selfish to keep such a hard core experience to myself. Stomach cancer is far too common around the world, yet so quiet to people of color in the U.S. I didn’t want to implode in sickness and not do what I have done my whole life which is spread truth to empower our people,” says Strong, who produced the film Red Hook and starred in the 1995 movie Panther. “The American Cancer Society makes it clear that the number of folks being diagnosed with stomach cancer are too small for action to be bigger but I disagree. They put infinite amounts of money into breast cancer and other cancers but stomach cancer is much more of a commonality than people know. Cancer is a disease that affects all races/genders and has no age limit; it’s a horrible way to go when you have the resources available yet they are far too out of reach to benefit from them. As a result people are being diagnosed at later stages rather than having more preventative measures for all types of cancer. Stomach cancer is the second largest cancer around the world claiming lives every day.”
Prevention is key to helping decrease the number of stomach cancer victims. “Knowing the risk factors for stomach cancer, including hereditary risks, will save lives. Early detection is the key to surviving stomach cancer. If you feel that something isn’t right and you are not getting the answers you need, don’t give up. Be persistent. Continue to seek answers and don’t stop until you get them,” says Lambert. “Lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, can potentially reduce the risk of stomach cancer. Treatment of H. pylori infection (a common bacterial infection of the stomach) can decrease the risk of stomach cancer development.
For now Strong is fighting for her life—and others. “I believe that every human being deserves the time on this planet to fulfill God’s plan and I am one of God’s children. It is for him to decide my fate but until then it’s up to me and my efforts to help myself and others,” she says. “I am committed to being vocal about prevention and health issues that go swept under the rug. This was a wake up call for me to continue to use my voice for a people that are too disenfranchised to see how important health is to survival.”