When Erin Joynt suffered stomach pain, she wrote it off as a possible stomach ulcer. The then 27-year-old nursing student and mother of two treated the symptoms and pushed on to complete her degree.
Months later, while working at her first job at a hospital, Joynt’s symptoms worsened. After being hospitalized for three days with upper GI bleeding, tests revealed cancer: Stage 3B signet ring cell gastric adenocarcinoma.
“She loved her job and was excited to learn,” says her mom, Naperville resident Pat Montminy. “Now she’s on short-term disability… It’s a huge burden for someone so young to carry the rest of their lives.”
Stomach cancer occurs more commonly among older people (usually between 60 and 80 years old) and less often among women. Even so, it is rare, with only an estimated 21,600 new cases occurring in the United States in 2013.
Gastric cancer also ranks among the most deadly, as the symptoms mimic more benign conditions like acid reflux and don’t present until later stages.
“With most gastric cancers, by the time you have developed symptoms of the cancer, it will have spread,” says Dr. Mathew Chung, surgical oncologist at Spectrum Health Medical Group.
In Joynt, the cancer moved on to affect 15 lymph nodes.
Because of her age, Joynt underwent genetic testing to look for the presence of a CDH1 gene mutation. In those with the CDH1 gene, the risk of gastric cancer increases to 70-80 percent. Therefore, family members at risk must undergo regular screenings (via endoscopy). They sometimes also have the option of preventative gastrectomy — the removal of the stomach to avoid the potential for cancer growth.
Joynt’s treatment included a complete gastrectomy. In the three-hour process, Chung removed Joynt’s stomach and brought up a loop of her small intestine to connect to the bottom of her esophagus.
Joynt can still eat. She simply requires many smaller meals throughout the day. And she changed to a diet higher in protein, with more fruits and vegetables.
“I have to chew my food a lot,” she says. “Otherwise I get nauseous.”
While Joynt’s genetic tests came back negative, meaning she needn’t fear for her children or other relatives, the road to eradicating the cancer has been long. She is nearing the end of a six-week chemotherapy treatment and five weeks of radiation.
Chung applauds Joynt’s strength and progress through the treatment.
“She took it well,” he says. “The main factor was that she is so young and healthy.”
From Joynt’s perspective, an upbeat attitude played a significant role in her persevering.
“Staying positive can change your outcome,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m a person with cancer.”
And the support of family and friends helped a lot, too. Between her husband, her in-laws and her parents, Joynt’s home and children have been well cared for. And she has been freed to focus on battling the cancer.
“They have all been helpful and really supportive,” she says.
But the support didn’t end there. On Nov. 9, Joynt’s mom, along with her father, Dave Voirin, held a benefit dinner at Marmion Academy to raise funds to cover medical expenses. More than 460 people turned out for the event and contributed generously.
“What a great community we have of people who could come together for this cause,” Joynt says. “I was humbled and moved to tears when I walked in and saw how many people were there.”
This journey also has given Joynt a new perspective as a nurse.
“It helped me see when you’re in the hospital, you’re not just another patient — you’re a person.”