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OPED: A hero in the war on cancer

York Dispatch
  • Jamie Dunmire was first exposed to cancer as a high schooler when her mother was diagnosed.
  • She decided to be tested for genetic irregularities leading to cancer,
  • It was a wise decision.

Cancer is one of the deadliest diseases in our country. More than 500,000 Americans die from cancer each year. Despite improvements in cancer treatment, prevention and detection, cancer is often considered a death sentence.

The word "cancer" usually reminds us of the people we lost to cancer, not those who survive it. While cancer provokes fear by it's mere mention, one local woman exhibited uncommon bravery to tackle cancer head-on by undergoing a painful and risky preemptive surgery. In the continuing war on cancer, Jamie Dunmire is a true hero whose unique story provides hope to many and demonstrates that cancer can be beaten, even when the odds seem against you. 

Jamie Dunmire with husband Gabriel and daughters Ella, left, and Annie.

Jamie, who lives in York, was first exposed to cancer when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was in high school. Her mother beat breast cancer with a great deal of bravery and determination, only to be diagnosed with colon cancer 14 years later. The cancer spread quickly to other parts of her body, including the stomach and esophagus, and surgery was not an option. Jamie's mother passed away in January 2009 after a brave, dignified fight against cancer. Her death was a difficult loss for Jamie and her family, and yet her death would ultimately reveal an important clue to help Jamie defend herself against cancer. 

Several years following her mother's death, in the spring of 2016, Jamie and her doctor discussed the fact that breast cancer had passed from generation to generation among the women in her family. Her doctor suggested an appointment with a genetic counselor to run tests to identify any possible gene mutations that may increase the probability of Jamie getting breast cancer. 

An appointment with the genetic counselor was expensive and did not seem necessary. Jamie could continue to get mammograms to check for any signs of breast cancer in time to treat it. However, she decided to meet with the genetic counselor and obtain as much information as possible to prevent any occurrence of cancer.

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She decided to be tested for genetic irregularities leading to all types of cancer, not only to breast cancer as suggested by her doctor. It was a wise decision. Jamie and her doctor expected the test results to reveal a genetic abnormality that made her susceptible to breast cancer. Shockingly, the test revealed that Jamie carried an extremely rare genetic mutation that dramatically increased her chances of being inflicted with stomach cancer by her mid-40s, and a 56 percent chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime. This genetic mutation is found in only .0006 percent of the population.

Armed with this information, Jamie asked her doctor what she could do to prevent stomach cancer. Further tests indicated there was a high likelihood she would get stomach cancer within the next few years, and that it would be difficult to treat once she was ill. Her only option was to have surgery to remove her stomach before the presence of any stomach cancer.  It would be a surgery with a high level of risk and certain to be accompanied with a long and painful recovery, as well as long term changes to her dietary habits. 

It created a difficult dilemma for Jamie and her family, made all the more complicated because Jamie's doctor acknowledged the difficulty of performing the surgery. To her doctor's surprise, Jamie decided to try and preempt any chance of stomach cancer by having her stomach removed. She understood the risks of the surgery and chose to fight cancer on her own terms. Considering all that she had to live for, especially a loving husband and two wonderful daughters, the decision to go forward with the surgery was amazingly brave and courageous. 

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Jamie's surgery took place on Dec. 6. The surgery, originally scheduled for two or three hours, lasted more than 12 hours and left her family understandably concerned. The surgery also left Jamie in a fragile state with pain we would never want to imagine. Her body was connected to more tubes than the guy from the Matrix. Fortunately for Jamie and her family, the surgery to remove her stomach was successful. Six long days after the surgery, Jamie was released from the hospital and returned home to her family. 

Jamie faces a long and challenging recovery. She'll continue to experience pain and discomfort for the next several months, along with significant changes to her diet. Despite these unpleasant side effects, Jamie is handling her recovery remarkably well. Her positive attitude and great sense of humor will certainly help her through this recovery and to adapt to many lifestyle changes. Most importantly, Jamie's courage to move forward with the surgery protects her from a dangerous strand of stomach cancer that claimed her mother's life seven years ago. 

The war on cancer has many heroes, from the scientists developing new treatments to the terminally ill cancer patients who never give up, regardless of their suffering and prognosis. A rare genetic mutation caused Jamie Dunmire to become highly susceptible to both stomach and breast cancer. It was an incredibly unfair situation that no person should ever have to endure. With the odds against her, Jamie decided to put cancer on the defensive by having a preemptive surgery.

It was a courageous decision that should encourage others to undergo cancer screenings and other early detection tests, even if they are painful, uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing. It’s an inspiring story that reminds us that we can fight cancer on our terms. 

— Matt Helfrich is a York Dispatch guest contributor and a resident of Harleysville, Pennsylvania.