Laura Pollard always thought she would die of stomach cancer. The Scottsdale resident watched her father die of the disease when she was 18. Her grandmother and six of her father's seven siblings had cancer, too.
It was only when one of Pollard's cousins succumbed to the disease in 2003 that family members discovered they had a genetic mutation that predisposed them to stomach cancer. Pollard and her 18 surviving cousins were tested for the genetic defect, and 11 of them, including Pollard, had it.
But instead of waiting for the cancer to strike, all 11 cousins took a preventive measure — they had their stomachs removed.
Before her cousin's death, Pollard, 45, had no idea people could live without a stomach. But life without a stomach is just fine, she said.
"Every single one of us is very thankful we had that surgery," Pollard said.
Pollard's family, as one of the largest groups with this genetic defect to come forward, will help researchers who are trying to learn more about genetic dispositions to cancer, said Cary Armstrong, a genetic counselor with the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center at Scottsdale Healthcare Shea.
Genetically caused cancer is relatively rare — only 8 percent to 10 percent of cancers are caused by a genetic defect, and most of those are ovarian or breast cancer, Armstrong said.
Only recently could researchers pinpoint genetics as a cause for some diseases instead of a family's environmental surroundings, she said.
"Genetics is a young field," Armstrong said. "They knew for a long time that things were running in a family, but they didn't know what the cause was."
Pollard's husband, David, 54, said Laura has been worried about stomach cancer since the couple met.
"It was something that she talked about a lot," David Pollard said.
"She would always tell me she would die before I did."
Laura Pollard was as proactive as she could be, having endoscopies every two years, since 1996, he said. But endoscopies don't always catch stomach cancer.
Stomach cancer tumors are spread out in the lining of the stomach, making them hard to see until it's too late, she said.
"I have a beautiful color photo of my stomach a week before my surgery that shows I was fine," she said. "When they got in and removed my stomach, they found I had stage one cancer."
Laura Pollard had her stomach removed by Dr. David Kooby in Atlanta in October 2004. People who have their stomachs removed can still digest food through the small intestine.
The first few weeks after the surgery, Pollard said she was so nauseous she couldn't look in her pantry. It also took some time for Pollard's intestine to learn how to digest food, she said. There were a lot of bland meals at first, and Pollard had to skip Thanksgiving dinner that year.
Now Pollard said she feels "better than 100 percent" and can eat just about anything.
She and her cousins, who are scattered from Washington to South Africa, celebrated their successful surgeries with a family reunion in Las Vegas over the Memorial Day weekend. The family gathering received national attention, including an Associated Press article that was published two weeks ago.
Not having a stomach also had some nice, unintended side effects — Pollard now eats less and ended up dropping 125 pounds to her current weight of 141.
"A dinner at a restaurant will last me for three meals," she said. "I have a lot of Styrofoam containers in my refrigerator."
David Pollard said this caused a small problem for him.
“When she gets done, I'll say, ‘You're not going to eat that?’” he said. "I've gained a little weight as a result."
But David Pollard said he's learning to not eat his wife's leftovers, and he's grateful she's feeling good.
Laura Pollard knows she hasn't put death off forever. But she also knows her father died when he was 46, leaving behind a 37-year-old widow and three teenage children.
"My daughter's 15," Pollard said. "I want to meet my grandchildren."