Jessica Solt says she’ll never forget what her doctor told her in September 2016: “You can live without a stomach.”
Solt, 36, was enjoying life with her husband, Juan Pablo Horcasitas, and their then-14-month-old son, Martin, in New York City when she was diagnosed with hereditary diffuse gastric cancer — an inherited disorder that quickly resulted in stomach cancer.
“It just seemed so shocking,” Solt said of the diagnosis. “It was just so bizarre and terrifying. They were like, ‘Our recommendation is that you remove your stomach because you don’t know what’s going to happen. This is a very deadly kind of cancer and, once it starts spreading, there’s no way out.’ “
Solt says she left the hospital that day “very, very sad,” devastated at the thought of having to live without a stomach. About a month later, she underwent the hours-long surgery, in which a surgeon removed her stomach and connected her esophagus to her small intestine to “mimic a stomach.”
“Life as I knew it was over,” she says of undergoing the invasive surgery. “I thought I was gonna be achy all the time … that I wasn’t gonna enjoy life or food or my son or my marriage or anything. I really thought life was gonna be sh—-.”
And, she says, it was — for the first few months. For 10 months after the surgery, Solt says she could barely keep food down and was hospitalized four times as the new passage created for her food kept closing.
“Those first months were hell. The first year was a nightmare. It was like eating through a really tiny straw. It was really, really horrible,” Solt recalls to PEOPLE.
“I couldn’t drink, I couldn’t eat. I was getting weaker and weaker. I had to use a feeding tube for three months, which gave me some relief.”
In July 2017, she had to undergo a similar surgery to ensure that the small passage remained open, allowing her to eat and properly take in food. After that, Solt says, life got a bit easier, as she was able to eat and keep her food down.
“Five days later we ordered Thai food and I ate like a normal person! I was like, ‘This is great!’ ” she recalls of the days after the surgery. “I’ve been very lucky in the sense that I can eat what I want, as long as it’s not a ton of food. Except cereal and milk … I don’t eat that anymore.”
After the second surgery, Solt says she struggled to gain and maintain a healthy weight. Now, she sometimes experiences “sugar crashes,” which she says can be debilitating.
“I can’t eat a lot, like I would like to. I have to take it easy, because I get really tired,” Solt tells PEOPLE, noting that she can no longer be the “typical mom” who can easily play outside with her son. “That’s a bummer because I’m only 36 and I wish I had more energy.”