JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
After losing her sister to a rare form of stomach cancer, a Brooke Army Medical Center respiratory therapist found out that she too would likely develop the same type of cancer.
In 2016, Army Staff Sgt. Kelle Brown was stationed at Fort Hood (now Fort Cavazos), Texas, when her sister was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. Hereditary diffuse gastric cancer is a rare inherited condition associated with an increased risk of gastric (stomach) cancer. Her sister passed away just 52 days later.
Stomach cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death worldwide. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 26,000 Americans are diagnosed with stomach cancer annually and more than 11,000 die from the disease.
Brown’s mother also had a rare form of lobular breast cancer a few years earlier. Invasive lobular carcinoma is a type of breast cancer that begins in the milk-producing glands (lobules) of the breast.
“My sister’s care team told us about a rare gene mutation called CDH1 that has both this rare form of stomach cancer and breast cancer,” Brown said. “They suggested that I get checked, and I had the gene.”
About 1% to 3% of stomach cancers are hereditary diffuse gastric cancers. The disorder is caused by mutation in the CDH1 gene. HDGC is an inherited cancer syndrome that leads to an increased risk for both diffuse stomach cancer and lobular breast cancer. People who inherit the genetic mutation for HDGC are at high risk for developing stomach cancer at a young age.
At first, Brown really wasn’t too concerned by the news.
“I thought, ‘okay, just because I have the gene doesn’t mean I will get the cancer,’” Brown said. “But they said because of how aggressive that stomach cancer is they wanted me to get my stomach removed immediately. Everything was happening so fast.”
“I started doing research and reading about it and it did sound pretty serious, but I still wasn’t letting them take my stomach out,” she said.
Brown didn’t want to put her military career on hold. “I had things to do,” she said. “I wanted to go to ALC (Advanced Leader Course).”
The doctors told her that if she didn’t have her stomach removed, she would need to get an Esophagogastroduodenoscopy every six months. EGD is a test procedure to examine the lining of the esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine. She also needed a mammogram every six months and an MRI six months after that. She agreed to do the surveillance.
“I was getting the EGD every six months, and my stomach kept changing,” she said. At that point, they told her she didn’t have time to wait. She got a referral to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
They found four tumors that were stage 1b stomach cancer. In January 2018, surgeons removed her stomach and attached her esophagus to her small intestine. Her doctor told her if she had waited any longer, she probably would have died because of the aggressive nature of that type of cancer.
“Luckily, they got it out in time, and I was good to go with just having my stomach removed,” Brown said. “I had to learn how to eat again. I can eat normal foods, but I need to eat smaller meals more frequently.”
“It was hard for me at first because I don’t get the sensation of hunger and I don’t get the sensation of feeling full,” Brown explained. “Because I wasn’t getting the sensation of hunger, I wasn’t eating properly. I went from 167 pounds to 108 pounds in three months. My body was completely drained.”
About eight months after her gastrectomy surgery, she received a call from the post surgeon at Fort Cavazos. He was questioning her ability to remain on active duty given her medical history.
She had to take a PT (physical training) test and proved that she could eat an MRE (meal ready to eat).
“I told him that I could eat as much of an MRE as anyone else did and I scored higher on my PT test than I did before I had my surgery,” Brown said. “He said ‘OK,’ and I’ve been good ever since.”
Soon after that she received her orders to come to the U.S. Army Institute for Surgical Research Burn Center collocated at BAMC.
Not only was she still recovering from the stomach removal surgery, but she found a lump on her left breast, so she went for a mammogram, and they found something on her right breast as well. Now she had breast cancer.
“In the middle of my recovery from the gastrectomy I found out about the breast cancer,” she said.
In December, she drove herself to Houston to have double mastectomy surgery.
“When I got there, they asked me who was with me,” she said. “I said no one. They were astonished that I came alone.”
The next day, she called her best friend to come pick her up. “She was so mad at me; not because she had to pick me up, but because I didn’t tell her what was happening.”
At that point, Brown still hadn’t told her parents or her children about the breast cancer or the mastectomy surgery.
She wasn’t prepared for how hard her recovery would be. “I got home, and I was tired and in pain, and because of my gastrectomy, I couldn’t take any pain medication,” she said. “I couldn’t get my shirt off, so I just sat there and cried. I ended up having to cut my shirt off. I was in the middle of my PCS move, so I ended up having to call my dad to hook up my washer and dryer.”
She tried to hide the drain tubes they put in under a jacket, but her mom knew something was wrong.
“She saw the drain tube from the bottom of my jacket,” Brown said. “That’s how my parents found out and my mom was livid. She was so upset.”
After the initial shock, they were super supportive. Her kids, 17 and 15 at the time, didn’t know either because they were with their dad.
“I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t want anybody to worry about anything,” she said.
She started in the Burn Center the day after Christmas, just three weeks after her double mastectomy surgery.
Marion Elliott has known Brown for more than eight years.
“It was amazing to see such a young woman with such tenacity and fortitude to the odds set against her,” Elliott said. “If you tell Kelle Brown she can’t do something she will say ‘Watch Me!’ Kelly had a tough time, but she never gave up. She fought with everything in her. A lot of the time she would not let us help her. She wanted to do it on her own. She’s a very hardheaded and stubborn person, but you can’t help but to love her.”
Elliott respects Brown for her professionalism as well as her caring and ability to “let her hair down and have fun.”
Today Brown works with non-profit organizations to bring awareness to stomach cancer and she advocates for additional research to help find a cure for the deadly disease.
“Yes, this does suck, and some days are not good, and I don’t feel well,” Brown said. “But I found this community of people who understand what it’s like not to have a stomach. It’s very comforting to be understood in that sense. It’s hard to explain it to people because they cannot wrap their head around the fact that I don’t have a stomach, because no one has ever heard of this before.”
Brown continues to serve and is an Interservice Respiratory Therapy Program Phase II Clinical Instructor at BAMC.
“Having no stomach has left me with nothing but the intestinal fortitude to push through,” she added. “Facing and overcoming challenges has made me a better Soldier and leader. I hope that my dedication inspires others and that my presence in the ranks serves as an example of perseverance. Remember that in the midst of hardship, you have the chance to make a lasting impact, both in the Army and beyond.”