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Kirsten’s Stomach Cancer Story

In February 2022, Kirsten Vernon very sadly passed away from an aggressive form of stomach cancer. Kirsten’s husband James has taken the time to write Kirsten’s story to help raise awareness of the symptoms she experienced and her journey with stomach cancer.

“I met Kirsten in 2016 – when she came to my travel agency to book her big OE. Whether she intended to find her Romeo in Italy or a new beau in Paris, she ended up marrying her travel agent! Lucky me at the end of the day because I got to spend 5 and a half years with the most gorgeous and kind-hearted person. I remember being struck by Kirsten’s beautiful blue eyes, her genuine smile and her unreal sense of humour.

We lived both in Wellington before a two-year stint in the UK, staying with my family whilst we travelled around Europe and beyond. After which, we returned to New Zealand and heading to Auckland to begin our next chapter.

In November of 2021, Kirsten started to complain of an uncomfortable and bloated stomach accompanied by a feeling of fullness after only small amounts of food. As it has very similar symptoms, we tried a couple of prescribed treatments for IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) but after two weeks there was no improvement. Our GP recommended we go into hospital for some more in-depth tests and Kirsten presented to Auckland hospital in early December. At that time, Kirsten found her stomach was more bloated and it had become uncomfortable for her to walk longer distances or do exercise.

In hospital, the doctors began with gynae tests before ultrasounds showed the presence of ascites, a fluid which was collecting on the peritoneum (a thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen). This was concerning. There are several possible causes for this fluid, cancer being one of them. Though at this stage, we both didn’t consider cancer to behind these symptoms. Afterall, Kirsten had always led a very healthy lifestyle and had always been proactive with seeking medical advice.

The doctors took a sample of the fluid in her abdomen. This was Kirsten’s first true medical procedure and though she was terrified, her bravery was amazing. Kirsten and I left Auckland to spend Christmas with her family whilst the fluid was investigated in a lab.

Before we could get stuck into any festivities, we received a lifechanging phone call. Cancer cells had been found in the fluid. I could tell that Kirsten was absolutely devastated. Of course, so was I, but I tried my best to remain calm, positive, and strong for her. Though, in all honesty I found it near impossible to sleep at night with so many questions in my head.

Many of those questions were answered over the next couple of weeks, as we returned to Auckland to continue investigations. After she had dealt so bravely with her first procedure, Kirsten then had a number of follow up procedures to contend with – from scans, to fluid drains, to laparoscopies to endoscopies. It was all new for her. She was incredibly courageous, and we were so proud of her. It was gut-wrenching for myself and Kirsten’s family to see our girl in pain. We all leaned on each other.

In the first week of January, whilst readmitted to Auckland hospital, we met with oncologists for the first time. We were told that Kirsten had stomach cancer, more specifically a diffuse stomach cancer. This cancer lacks the ability to stick together in clumps or tumours. Instead, it lived and spread within the walls of Kirsten’s stomach, before metastasizing and making its way to the peritoneum and producing the ascites. It had made Kirsten’s stomach hardened, which stopped it from being able to stretch, consequently making her feel full very quickly. Kirsten’s symptoms had now began to make sense.

In a harrowing meeting with an oncologist, we were told that if Kirsten’s cancer had spread too far, then surgery to remove it would not an option. This meant the cancer would be considered incurable.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the scans revealed.

I could see the shock and sadness fill Kirsten’s eyes as all of our plans for our life together came crashing down. It was incredibly tough for us to comprehend. In just over a month, we’d gone from dealing with IBS to stage four stomach cancer.

Chemotherapy is offered in this situation to control the symptoms – and those symptoms were coming thick and fast. Kirsten’s pain had increased, she’d become extremely uncomfortable and began to suffer from chronic nausea and vomiting. This meant she had very little ability to eat – sapping her energy and exacerbating her decline. Litres and litres of fluid were now being produced by the cancer within Kirsten’s torso. We couldn’t believe how quickly the situation was changing.

One thing that never changed however, was Kirsten’s heart. She was still so beautifully natured and was often more concerned with making sure the nurses took their breaks on time, than her own plight. One of the countless reasons I will always love her.

Kirsten’s family and friends offered amazing support and she was never once alone. From her diagnosis to her passing, she always had somebody by her side both day and night. We all became nurses and healthcare assistants through that time.

Kirsten was only well enough for one round of chemotherapy during her journey. In many respects, I find comfort in the fact her fight was brief and her suffering wasn’t prolonged. Despite her truly inspirational bravery, we lost Kirsten in mid-February. Less than two months from her initial diagnosis.

However thankfully not before we were able to finally tie the knot and become husband and wife. Whilst the wedding didn’t look quite like we had pictured, it meant all the same, if not more. Kirsten’s family did the most incredible job of transforming a drab hospital meeting room into an elegant and whimsical spot to say “I do”. Kirsten was brilliant that day. She read her own vows and calling her Mrs Vernon fills me with immense pride.

For anybody else who is going through the same or similar situations, my key bit of advice is to surround yourself with good people. They may not be able to fix everything, but a good support network shares the strain that cancer undoubtedly puts on yourself and your family members. Reach out. Be it to friends and family, or to professionals. Look after yourself so you can look after that person you care about so much.