Getting Off the Sideline

Taking the Fight to Stomach Cancer

For Candace Netzer, the dinner table was the hub of life. Communing with family, friends or clients around a healthy meal brought her endless energy.
City of Hope staff members
City of Hope staff members and physician Ajay Goel share a special Zoom moment with Jeff Netzer and the Stupid Strong team.

“She loved to be around people, telling stories and learning new things, experiencing unique food and good conversation,” Jeff Netzer said of his late wife. “The dinner table is where she rekindled friendships and grew into relationships. That was her happy place.” And her favorite phrase after a great meal: “It was stupid good.”

Life for the Netzers changed dramatically in June 2014 when Candace was diagnosed with stage 3 stomach cancer. It was shocking news. But within weeks of her diagnosis, Candace and Jeff launched the Stupid Strong Charitable Foundation to combat her disease. Their grant-based nonprofit pledged to raise awareness about gastric cancer, advance funding for research, and ultimately find a cure. “Some good has to come from this,” Jeff remembered them saying to each other at the time—and indeed it has.

“The idea is that we’ll have both earlier detection and faster treatments that will extend quality of life after you’ve been diagnosed.”

Thus far, Stupid Strong has granted more than $775,000 to worthy institutions. Its latest gift is a two-year, $125,000 grant to support the work of Ajay Goel, A.G.A.F., M.S., Ph.D., who joined City of Hope in 2019. Goel is an expert in gastrointestinal cancers and serves as a professor and founding chair of the new Department of Molecular Diagnostics and Experimental Therapeutics.

Stomach cancer is responsible for more than 11,000 deaths in the United States each year, even though it doesn’t often make headlines. It is a challenging disease to treat because it usually only makes itself known once it has advanced to late stages. That’s why Goel has been developing a blood test that uses microRNA biomarkers to try to identify gastric cancer much earlier and find tumors that develop in the abdominal cavity when gastric cancers spread.

“The idea is that we’ll have both earlier detection and faster treatments that will extend quality of life after you’ve been diagnosed,” said Jeff, who lives in Colleyville, Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb where Stupid Strong is based. “I’m excited by City of Hope because Dr. Goel has been really vocal about the level of support he receives from the institution. Their bench-to-bedside approach has an immediate impact on the people being provided with care.”

Candace was treated at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and then Baylor Scott & White Medical Center, where a friend connected them with Goel. Struck by his passion, drive, and vision, Candace and Jeff decided to fund a three-year study to help Goel develop his blood test. The idea is that these less intrusive tests will eventually become an easy, affordable part of annual health checks the same way that tests for diabetes and cholesterol are.

The Stupid Strong gift was the catalyst for discoveries that led to Goel publishing articles in February 2021 in the prominent journals Gastric Cancer and Clinical Cancer Research. Goel and his team were investigating how to improve outcomes for patients with diffuse type gastric cancer (DGC), which responds poorly to chemotherapy and whose delayed detection results in high mortality rates. In trying to pinpoint recurrence prediction biomarkers, the researchers analyzed genome-wide transcriptomic profiling data and identified a seven-gene panel for robust prediction of recurrence in DGC patients. This model for identifying patients at high risk for peritoneal recurrence or metastasis may play a crucial role in clinical decision-making for patients with gastric cancer.

Though Candace passed away in November 2017, Jeff was eager to continue supporting Goel’s work, and a new Stupid Strong-funded trial at City of Hope allows Goel to try his tests on live tissue. “Part of it is giving us closure that we fulfilled our obligation to the vision of his original proposal, but it’s also a testament to Dr. Goel and his work,” said Jeff. “You gotta get off the sideline and help those who have lost hope. This is our way to do that and honor the memory of my wife.”

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