Irasema Partida Chavez: Overcoming Stomach Cancer and Breast Cancer

Age: 43Glendora, California

Irasema Partida Chavez was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2015, at the age of 34. Irasema remembers dealing with months of persistent heartburn, indigestion, nausea, and fatigue. She had also lost some weight. “I took over-the-counter pain medications to help with the symptoms so I could perform my daily functions,” she said. After a particularly bad episode at work, Irasema and her girlfriend, now wife, ended up in urgent care. Unfortunately, the providers at the urgent care facility did not give much attention to the situation and recommended that she follow up with her primary care physician. The pain persisted and the next morning her wife made a same day appointment with a gastroenterologist.

“The gastroenterologist just said, ‘I do not like it. I do not think that you should be in this much pain,’” she recalled. They performed an endoscopy, which revealed an ulcer. While they thought that the ulcer was the main cause of Irasema’s symptoms, her gastroenterologist had also taken some biopsies. “When my biopsy results came back, we got a call. I ignored my phone.” Irasema’s wife also received a call asking them to go back to the doctor’s office right away. Irasema’s hemoglobin counts were extremely low. “They wanted to admit me to the hospital to give me some blood transfusions.”

However, when Irasema and her wife arrived at the doctor’s office, her gastroenterologist informed them there was something else that he needed to discuss. “My biopsies had come back, and they were positive for stomach cancer,” she said. “My wife and I sat in that office. It felt like we were just hit by a train. We were in shock and really did not know what that meant. You hear the word cancer, and the first thought that comes to your brain is death. I was 34, my daughter was 13 and our son was four at the time. We did not know what to expect.”

Looking back, Irasema feels fortunate to have a gastroenterologist who guided her through her treatment path. “He had already called a surgeon who he had worked with in the past to get me a consultation.” Initially she underwent a partial gastrectomy where 80 percent of her stomach was removed. The surgery also revealed cancer in the nearby lymph nodes, which led to Irasema’s cancer being assigned as stage IIB. After she healed for about six weeks, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation.

Life after a partial gastrectomy was challenging. “I was learning how to reintroduce food into my system. Trying to go through chemo as well was very debilitating. It was very challenging maintaining my weight and we had to do a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line to help with nutrition intravenously.” Irasema had no evidence of disease (NED) for eight months. However, a follow-up endoscopy and biopsies in September of 2016 showed signs of recurrence. Even though it was localized, Irasema had to undergo a total gastrectomy, to surgically remove her entire stomach.

She does not recall clinical trials being part of the discussion during her initial treatments. However, from her work
in the patient advocacy space in recent years, she has gained a deep knowledge about clinical trials and their importance. “I do not know if I would have been open to it in 2015, but if it were now, I would have participated. Because I understand how important my voice is and me being in a trial would be for other patients.”

Then, after having no evidence of stomach cancer for three and a half years, in September of 2020, Irasema was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her routine scans showed abnormality in the right breast, which led to a mammogram followed by biopsy that revealed invasive ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). “It felt like an eternity before the biopsies came back and all of it was cancer. They found 13 centimeters of cancer in my right breast.” She decided to have a double mastectomy to maximize the extent of cancer removal. Molecular testing had shown that the cancer was HER2 positive. As a result, she received a molecularly targeted treatment against HER2 for a year.

Fortunately, Irasema has been healthy since. “I am doing well. I have been NED for three years for breast cancer and about eight years for stomach cancer. I am happy that I am here and that everything worked well,” she said.

Irasema’s wife has been a pillar for her throughout the entire cancer journey. “My wife was with me at every single appointment. I had an amazing team of doctors, who nine times out of ten reached out to my wife first. I never experienced any kind of discrimination for my orientation.”

Her experience has made her a passionate advocate for patients with stomach cancer. Her message to other patients is to not lose hope while going through their cancer journey. “I like sharing my story and hope that somebody who is just starting their journey can find some strength in mine. I want them to know that living without a stomach is possible. It is hard but you can live a good, healthy, and very fulfilling life.”