The country music world is in mourning as Toby Keith, the iconic singer, passed away at the age of 62 after battling stomach cancer for over two years. His journey sheds light on the importance of recognizing stomach cancer symptoms and seeking early diagnosis.

In June 2022, Keith revealed his diagnosis, stating that he had undergone chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and immunotherapy. Despite a positive update last June about the tumor shrinking, the relentless battle with stomach cancer ultimately claimed his life.

Stomach cancer often manifests subtly, with symptoms like heartburn, acid reflux, anemia, nausea, ulcers, pain after eating, sudden weight loss, or feeling full after small meals. Dr. Fabian Johnston from Johns Hopkins Medicine emphasizes the deceptive nature of these symptoms, urging vigilance as they can be dismissed, leading to delayed diagnoses.

The average age of diagnosis is 68, with men having a slightly higher risk. Stomach cancer, though relatively rare, is expected to cause nearly 27,000 new cases in the U.S. this year. While overall diagnosis rates have slightly declined, there’s a concerning rise in cases among adults under 50, indicating a need for heightened awareness and early detection.

“There’s something that’s going on — something we’re eating, something we’re ingesting, some combination of factors that’s modern and present — which is resulting in these increased cancers in young people,” said Dr. Ben Schlechter, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

While alcohol and tobacco are now linked to a minority of cases, the rise in young adults suggests modern lifestyle factors at play. Chronic acid reflux and infections like Helicobacter pylori are common precursors, but the reasons why some develop cancer remain unclear.

“It’s a disease of bad luck,” Schlechter said. “Maybe there’s an association with H. pylori infection. Maybe there’s a history of heartburn or reflux, but usually it’s not as clear.”

Stomach cancer, predominantly adenocarcinomas, tends to be aggressive. Dr. Rutika Mehta, a medical oncologist in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, notes that while advanced cases lack a cure, treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy can extend lives. Advances in precision medicine also allow targeted therapies based on specific protein markers, offering a more tailored approach to treatment.

“In more advanced cases, we are not yet at a point where we can offer patients a ‘cure,’” Mehta wrote by email.

Learn more about why stomach cancer can be hard to miss, and what signs to look out for, in the video below.

Are you aware of the subtle signs of stomach cancer? Toby Keith’s battle emphasizes the importance of recognizing symptoms for early detection—have you or someone you know experienced similar symptoms?