Toby Keith dies of stomach cancer: These early signs are easily missed, doctors say

Country star Toby Keith has died at age 62, according to an announcement on the singer’s website, and his cause of death was due to stomach cancer.

The “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” singer died at 62 on Feb. 5, 2024, about 18 months after revealing he’d been undergoing treatment for the illness.

“Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family,” the announcement reads. “He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time.”

Toby Keith Receives BMI Icon Award at the 2022 BMI Country Awards (Jason Kempin / Getty Images )

Toby Keith Receives BMI Icon Award at the 2022 BMI Country Awards (Jason Kempin / Getty Images )

Keith had still been performing up until December, when he played shows in Las Vegas, one month after releasing his final album.

What did Toby Keith die from?

Keith died of stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer. The statement about his death noted that he “fought his fight with grace and courage.”

Stomach cancer is “not one of the more common causes of cancer death, but the problem is that, when it’s diagnosed, it’s oftentimes late stage,” Dr. William Chey, gastroenterologist at University of Michigan Health, tells TODAY.com, adding that in these cases, the cancer usually progresses faster.

In June 2022, Keith shared that he’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2021 and was undergoing treatment. He died a little over two years after his diagnosis.

“I’ve spent the last 6 months receiving chemo, radiation and surgery,” he posted in his first public comments about his illness. “So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover, and relax.”

“I am looking forward to spending this time with my family. But I will see the fans sooner than later. I can’t wait.”

Chey says that the treatments Keith was receiving “would be much more typical for late-stage stomach cancers.”

Keith shared an update on his condition on Sept. 28, 2023, when he received the Country Icon Awards at the inaugural People’s Choice Country Awards at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

2023 People's Choice Country Awards - Show (Mickey Bernal / NBC )2023 People's Choice Country Awards - Show (Mickey Bernal / NBC )

2023 People’s Choice Country Awards – Show (Mickey Bernal / NBC )

“I feel pretty good,” Toby told E! News at the time. “It’s a little bit of a roller coaster. You get good days and, you know, you’re up and down, up and down. It’s always zero to 60 and 60 to zero, but I feel good today.”

Keith added that his tumor had shrunk by about a third of its size at that time.

He also performed at the event, singing “Don’t Let the Old Man In” from Clint Eastwood’s movie “The Mule.”

“I’ve been going through my cancer fight for the last couple of years, and it’s really inspiring for a lot of people,” he said during NBC’s pre-show event. “And coming back on TV for the first time and performing live in front of a live audience, I thought it was fitting.”

Keith’s last performances came in a trio of sold-out shows in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, 11 and 14, 2023.

“They’re kind of rehab shows, get the band back in sync, get me rolling again,” he said in a video announcing the performances. “First time in my whole life I’ve been off over two years. I’ve never been off a year in my life.”

“Through COVID and cancer, the old devil’s been after me a little bit,” he added. “I’ve got him by the horns right now, so instead of just sitting around and waiting, we’re going to get the band back together.”

What causes stomach cancer?

Stomach cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the world and is caused by changes in the way stomach cells function, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The most common type is adenocarcinoma, which originates in the stomach’s innermost lining, according to the American Cancer Society.

The 2023 People's Choice Country Awards - Arrivals (Variety via Getty Images)The 2023 People's Choice Country Awards - Arrivals (Variety via Getty Images)

The 2023 People’s Choice Country Awards – Arrivals (Variety via Getty Images)

Risk factors for stomach cancer include tobacco use, obesity, gastroesophageal reflux disease, a diet high in salted and smoked foods, age and family history. Men are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease than women, according to the NCI. The average age of diagnosis is about 68.

Drinking alcohol “to excess,” which is common among some Americans, can also increase risk of gastric cancer, Chey says. “The lifestyle piece is hugely important to cancer.”

Worldwide, “the No. 1 leading cause for gastric cancer is an infection with a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori,” he adds. The bacteria is more common in other parts of the world where rates of stomach cancer are higher.

Stomach cancer symptoms

Stomach cancer can be hard to detect early because symptoms don’t usually begin to show until after the cancer has spread, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“A lot of times patients don’t get significant symptoms until the tumor is far advanced,” Chey says. “You might get a little bit of indigestion or abdominal pain (or) nausea. But those are symptoms that we all get and are easy to ignore.”

Stomach cancer symptoms include:

  • Indigestion and stomach discomfort

  • Feeling bloated after eating

  • Mild nausea

  • Heartburn

  • Loss of appetite

  • Blood in the stool

  • Vomiting

  • Weight loss for no known reason

  • Jaundice

  • A build-up of fluid in the abdomen

  • Trouble swallowing

Many doctors are using Keith’s death as an opportunity to increase awareness of these early signs of stomach cancer that often go ignored, such as acid reflux, anemia, pain after eating, unexplained weight loss or feeling full despite only eating a little bit.

“A lot of these things are relatively innocuous. But of course with a cancer, that’s how it gets you,” Dr. Fabian Johnston, the division chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told NBC News.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com