Debbie Zelman

"I'm doing everything right."

In 2008, Debbie Zelman, an attorney practicing in her own firm, was diagnosed with stage IV advanced, incurable stomach cancer. Debbie was 40 years old, the mother of three young children, and was married to a physician. She had practiced law for 14 years and for 10 years had owned her practice. She was healthy, didn't smoke or drink, she exercised, took vitamins, and didn't have a family history of cancer. She had no risk factors for stomach cancer.

After she was told that she had a few weeks to live, she immediately closed her law practice to begin the fight of her life. Her first thoughts were of her children.

"I was scared to die. I was scared that my three-year-old daughter wouldn't remember me, and my 10-year-old twins would go through their teenage years without a mother. I immediately decided that I was NOT going to let that happen, so I began the fight of my life."

The statistics were grim. Stomach cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men and fourth among women worldwide. Each year nearly 930,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with stomach cancer, and approximately 700,000 die of the disease. Approximately 24,500 Americans will be diagnosed with stomach cancer each year, and more than 11,000 will die within a year. According to the American Cancer Society, the overall 5-year relative survival rate for people with stomach cancer in the United States is about 28%, and the 5-year survival rate for stage IV stomach cancer is 4%.

However, Debbie refused to be a statistic. She underwent very harsh chemotherapy treatments, lost her hair, got neuropathy, suffered mouth sores, lost weight, almost lost several nails, spent years in bed, hospitals, and doctors' offices, and endured many painful days. Soon after she started chemotherapy, a friend connected her to another stage IV stomach cancer patient who became a vital resource. Debbie had so many questions about the cancer journey that only he could answer. The doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals were not as knowledgeable about the stomach cancer experience as another patient with the same diagnosis.

Debbie was shocked to discover there were not many resources for stomach cancer and that a new stomach cancer drug had not been developed in 30 years.

"How was that possible?"

As she began responding to the only chemotherapy regimen available, she realized that she needed to help others because there were no resources available for stomach cancer patients, few treatment options, and very little research being conducted. The one chemotherapy regimen that she was put on had been around for nearly 30 years, and there had been nothing developed since then. During those months and months in bed, she realized that she wanted to make a difference for others affected with stomach cancer, raise awareness about the disease, and fund more research. She realized there was a lot of work to be done so she began to raise funds for stomach cancer research, raise awareness, and support and educate patients, families, and caregivers. This was the beginning of Debbie's Dream Foundation: Curing Stomach Cancer (DDF) which Debbie officially founded in April 2009.

DDF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about stomach cancer, advancing funding for research, and providing education and support internationally to patients, families, and caregivers. As the first stomach cancer advocacy organization in the United States, DDF has helped hundreds of patients, families, and caregivers in 37 states and 19 countries. The foundation set up the free Patient Resource Education Program (PREP) so stomach cancer survivors and caregivers can be matched as mentors to other patients and caregivers with similar cancer stage, biomarker, age, gender, region, and role. DDF also offers free cancer education throughout the year and has numerous resources available on their website at DDF seeks as its ultimate goal to make the cure for stomach cancer a reality.

"The mission of DDF drives me and my Dream Team to help make an impact every day." says Debbie Zelman.

DDF is the world's leading stomach cancer advocacy group and they are making a big difference in advancing research funding. DDF holds an annual meeting in Washington D.C. attended by DDF advocates from across the United States to raise awareness of gastric cancer. Advocates - patients, survivors, family members, friends, caregivers, and health care professionals - and researchers share their stories about how stomach cancer has impacted their lives.

DDF is changing the landscape for gastric cancer in the United States. Prior to their first DC Advocacy Day in 2013, there had not been an organized effort with lawmakers to raise awareness about stomach cancer. Stomach cancer had not received the attention it deserved.

In February 2014, DDF advocates traveled to Capitol Hill to ask lawmakers to include stomach cancer among those cancers eligible for research funding under the Department of Defense's Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program (PRCRP). The result was that stomach cancer is now included as one of the eleven cancer research areas eligible for funding under the PRCRP.

As President and Founder of Debbie's Dream Foundation: Curing Stomach Cancer and as a stage IV stomach cancer patient, Debbie was honored to be asked to participate as a patient advocate on the CDMRP Department of Defense Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program Programmatic Panel. The $50 million in funding available in fiscal year 2015 will support cutting-edge research for 11 cancers including stomach cancer and also draw new researchers to the field. Debbie's Dream Foundation PREP Mentors have supported many stomach cancer patients who were or are currently in the military, and they see the impact that this disease has on patients' lives. The PRCRP funding affords an opportunity to advance the best research to eradicate disease and support cancer patients, service members, and their families.

Service members and their families, particularly those serving overseas, may be exposed to hazardous environments, which put them at increased risk of stomach cancer. Stomach cancer is a malignancy that has been recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs as presumed to be service-connected based on hazardous exposure to ionizing radiation. Additionally, research studies have shown that U.S. soldiers living under field conditions may be at greater risk of H. pylori infections. Most cases of stomach cancer worldwide (and in the United States) that occur in the lower part of the stomach are attributable to H. pylori.

Stomach cancer's eligibility for research funding under the PRCRP has the potential to make an enormous difference in understanding this under-researched cancer including the array of risk factors and causal mechanisms such as those related to military service.

"Together we are making the dream of curing stomach cancer a reality!"

2014 Advocacy Day Photo

Last updated Thursday, May 26, 2022