Antibiotics can prevent an insidious form of stomach cancer, but it's a little-known piece of information that the Chapa family got too late.
In retrospect, Lynette Chapa says the first sign of her husband's risk for the gastric cancer - which killed him last year - showed up 40 years ago, when they were first married. Art Chapa, then 30, had a bleeding ulcer that put him in the hospital for a few days. Doctors treated him with Maalox, milk and rest.
But that was in 1971, more than a decade before researchers identified a spiral-shaped bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori. It is now believed to be responsible for Art Chapa's unexpected death last Nov. 19, just days after the attorney and longtime Pima County lobbyist was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
While an H. pylori infection may be treated with antibiotics, most people who have it don't know. In some cases, the untreated irritation caused by the bacterium will progress to stomach cancer.
That's why Lynette and her family formed The Art Chapa Foundation for Gastric Cancer Prevention. Their first task is purchasing three $16,000 H. pylori breath-test machines for public health clinics in Tucson, Nogales and Phoenix. The foundation will hold its first event, a dinner to raise funds to buy those machines, in Tubac Nov. 18.
Eventually, Lynette Chapa would like to take the foundation to a national and international level, to prevent untimely deaths.
H. pylori disproportionately affects ethnic minorities. While it's more common in the developing world than in the West, it has shown a higher incidence among people living near the U.S.-Mexico border. Art Chapa grew up near the Mexican border in rural Texas. Most people who acquire the bacterium do so in childhood.
"H. pylori is a carcinogen, up there with cigarette smoking," Lynette Chapa said last week, seated in her north-side Tucson home and holding her 11-month-old puppy, Dexter, who has helped keep her company this painful year. "And there's a link between H. pylori and gastric cancer. Your stomach is irritated by it. It never heals. It's a logical progression."
Lynette, 68, is a determined mother and grandmother who first met Art in the halls of the Pentagon when she was working for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Art was working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Some of Art's Hispanic friends were tested after he died, and a few tested positive and were treated, she notes. "You only need to be tested for this once in your life," she said. "It's also important to educate doctors, to make sure they ask the right questions and then connect the dots. The important questions are asking where someone spent their early life and if anyone in their family had H. pylori or stomach cancer."
A test for H. pylori in someone with no symptoms is not standard and not typically covered by insurance plans, which is why the equipment will help, said Elena Martínez. She is co-director of the Arizona Cancer Center's Cancer Health Disparities Institute and is on the National Cancer Institute's Board of Scientific Advisors.
Martínez stresses that most people who test positive for H. pylori will not develop stomach cancer. More research is needed to determine why some people with H. pylori infections develop stomach cancer and others do not, she said.
Funding from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute for gastric cancer research is very small in proportion to what is spent on other cancers, Martínez said.
Researchers are not certain how H. pylori is transmitted, although they think it may be spread through contaminated food or water. The National Institutes of Health says H. pylori can cause peptic ulcers by damaging the mucous coating that protects the stomach and duodenum.
About 21,000 cases of stomach cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and nearly 11,000 people die of it annually. It's difficult to know what percentage of stomach cancers are from H. pylori. But people who test positive for the H. pylori bacterium are at a much higher risk of developing stomach cancer than the rest of the population.
Lynette Chapa wants to raise awareness locally, especially among Mexican-Americans, and particularly among those who have stomach problems or ulcers.
Art Chapa, a former member of the Arizona Board of Regents, loved to exercise and was vibrant and healthy until last fall, when he began complaining of a sore knee. His family later learned the stomach cancer had spread to his bones, liver and bladder.
He visited doctors, urgent care centers and emergency rooms in Tucson. On his final trip to the hospital in November, Lynette insisted he go to University Medical Center (now called the University of Arizona Medical Center). It wasn't until that final week there that Lynette found out H. pylori was the likely root cause of her husband's illness.
"I now know that once gastric cancer spreads, the prognosis is poor. The way to get it is at the early stages or to prevent it altogether," she said. "This is not a cause I asked for. It's something that fell into our laps, and it's about community responsibility. We can't just ignore it. Maybe if someone had done this a few years ago, Art would be alive."
If you go
• What: Fundraiser of the Art Chapa Foundation for Gastric Cancer Prevention.
• When: 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18.
• Where: Tubac Golf Resort & Spa, 1 Avenue de Otero Road in Tubac, 30 minutes south of Tucson on Interstate 19, at Exit 40.
• Tickets: $250. Call Donna at 626-6459 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
• For more information or to donate: artchapafoundation.org
• To stay over: The resort is offering weekend packages for the event's guests. Call 398-3521.
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at email@example.com or 574-4134.