Toby Keith Dies at 62 from Stomach Cancer: Understanding the Disease and its Symptoms

Toby Keith, a country music star who first rose to fame in the early 1990s with his debut single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” died at the age of 62 from stomach cancer.

Keith’s family shared the news in a February 6 statement on X (formerly Twitter).

“Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5 surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage,” the statement read.

“Please respect the privacy of his family at this time,” the message concluded.

Keith Revealed Stomach Cancer Diagnosis After Receiving 6 Months of Chemo

The country music star was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2021. “I’ve spent the last six months receiving chemo, radiation, and surgery. So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover, and relax,” read the Instagram post from the following spring.

Keith continued to perform after his diagnosis, most recently in Las Vegas in December and at the People’s Choice Country Awards in 2023, as reported by PBS. “I feel pretty good,” said Keith in an interview with E! News last September 2023. “It’s a little bit of a roller coaster. You get good days and, you know, you’re up and down, up and down. It’s always zero to 60 and 60 to zero, but I feel good today.”

What Is Stomach Cancer?

Although it is less common than cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and colon, stomach cancer is diagnosed in about 27,000 people in the United States each year, and about 11,000 people die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.

For perspective, in 2023, it’s estimated that about two million people were diagnosed with cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Lung cancer remains the deadliest cancer in America, causing about 127,000 deaths.

Compared with some other parts of the world such as Asia, stomach cancer is relatively rare in the United States, says Zev Wainberg, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of California Los Angeles and co-director of the UCLA GI Oncology program in Los Angeles.

Gastroesophageal cancer is the most common type of stomach cancer in the United States, says Dr. Wainberg. “The stomach is kind of a long organ and cancer can start in a few different spots along the way. Gastroesophageal cancer occurs at the place where the esophagus meets the stomach, called the gastroesophageal junction,” he explains.

The Link Between Stomach Cancer and Heartburn

In the United States, people are at higher risk for this type of stomach cancer because of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), commonly referred to as heartburn, says Wainberg. “Long-term acid reflux can damage the esophagus and may lead to a condition called Barrett esophagus, which can be a precursor to esophageal cancer,” he says.

The risk for developing stomach cancer is still relatively low, even within this group. Out of 1,000 people with Barrett esophagus with no sign of cancer yet, about 3 of those people can be expected to progress to esophageal cancer within a year.

Signs and Symptoms of Stomach Cancer

The symptoms of stomach cancer can include difficulty swallowing, food getting stuck, unexplained weight loss, or bleeding, which can happen through vomiting or passing stool in the blood, says Wainberg.

Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and feeling bloated can also be symptoms of stomach cancer, says Ning Jin, MD, a medical oncologist who specializes in treating gastrointestinal cancers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus.

Because stomach cancer in the United States is uncommon, there aren’t routine recommended screenings for it, says Wainberg. “Screening tests are usually determined by the risks and benefits — what’s the right thing for 100 million people? According to the people who decide what cancers are screened for, we don’t have enough of this type of cancer to justify doing an endoscopy on everybody,” he says.

An upper endoscopy, used to diagnose and screen for stomach cancer, is performed under general sedation, so the patient is asleep and feels no pain.

A tube with a camera attached on the end is routed down the mouth, through the esophagus and to the stomach.

Top Risk Factors For Stomach Cancer

“As is the case with a lot of gastrointestinal cancers, we still don’t understand why the majority of people get this kind of cancer. It’s not like lung cancer, where smoking is clearly the No. 1 risk factor,” says Wainberg. For that reason, it’s important to stay vigilant about symptoms, he adds.

Smoking, overconsuming alcohol, obesity, high intake of salty and smoked food, and a diet in low vegetables are all among the known risk factors for stomach cancer, says Dr. Jin.

Stomach infections caused by Helicobacter pylori are also a risk factor. H. pylori is the main cause of peptic ulcers and it can also cause gastritis and stomach cancer. About 30 to 40 percent of people in the United States contract an H. pylori infection at some point in their lives, usually as a child.

The bacteria is much more common in countries where sanitation and clean water are lacking — one reason why stomach cancer is less common in the United States than in other parts of the world.

What’s the Prognosis for Someone Diagnosed With Stomach Cancer?

Since there is no routine screening for stomach cancer, a majority of the people aren’t diagnosed until they have symptoms, at which point their cancer is often already stage 3 or stage 4, says Wainberg. “So upwards of 60 percent of patients are found when it’s already advanced disease, and that’s a more difficult scenario,” he says.

If the cancer is diagnosed in time, treatment would include chemotherapy and surgery, he says. “If the cancer is spread to other parts of the body, unfortunately, that’s stage 4 disease, and treatment would typically be chemotherapy and immunotherapy, not surgery,” says Wainberg.

For people diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, only about 1 in 10 people are still alive after 5 years, says Wainberg. “If it’s diagnosed a little earlier in stage 3, about 40 or 50 percent of people can survive at five years,” he says.

Don’t Ignore Acid Reflux or Heartburn that Doesn’t Go Away

A lot of people with symptoms of heartburn may just chalk it up to stress and ignore it. But if it continues or gets worse, you should mention it to your doctor, says Wainberg. “We’ve learned that we shouldn’t be ignoring persistent, difficult symptoms of heartburn and reflux, because they can get worse over time and cause damage,” he says.

Your doctor may decide that you need to get an upper endoscopy, which would identify signs of stomach cancer.

Even when there are no symptoms, you and your doctor may decide that your risk factors are enough to warrant screening. Those factors can include ethnicity (first- and second-generation immigrants from East Asia, Russia, and South American are considered higher risk), family history, race (nonwhite individuals are at higher risk), smoking history, overall health, and genetic risk of stomach cancer.

In terms of controllable risk factors, trying to maintain or achieve a healthy weight, not smoking, and not overconsuming alcohol can reduce your risk, says Wainberg.


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