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Paul: Esophageal Cancer Survivor

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Paul was having difficulty swallowing and decided to go to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. After a physical examination, he was prescribed medication for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). After a few weeks without relief, the specialist ordered a variety of diagnostic tests to determine if the problem could easily be solved, allowing him to swallow normally. One of the tests ordered was a barium swallow, which is a special type of imaging test that takes a close look at the back of the throat and esophagus. Another test performed was an endoscopy, which uses a flexible scope with a light and camera to view and take pictures of the inside of the digestive tract, including the esophagus and stomach. The results revealed a mass.

Paul was then quickly referred to a gastroenterologist, who performed a biopsy and ultimately diagnosed Paul with cancer of the esophagus. During this time, Paul recalled feeling as though time had stopped completely. He was then referred to Jeremy Kortmansky, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine (Medical Oncology).

“Things started happening at lightning speed after the tumor was discovered,” remembers Paul. “It was recommended that I undergo trimodality therapy, which is chemotherapy and radiation, followed by an esophagectomy. The operation would remove most of my esophagus and one-third of my stomach. The remaining portion of my stomach would then be brought up and connected to the esophagus in my neck. My physicians informed me that this combination of chemo, radiation, and surgery were required to save my life. It was a very frightening time because I knew that my life would be forever changed. But I also knew that going through all that treatment could save my life.” The use of trimodality treatment for patients with esophageal cancer has been shown to increase survival and offer the potential for long-term cure. Dr. Kortmansky collaborated with Daniel Boffa, MD, Associate Professor of Thoracic Surgery, who performed the surgery.

Since the diagnosis and treatment Paul’s life has changed in some ways. However, he has been able to return to the gym, take walks, and continues to enjoy yardwork and tending to his vegetable garden, which he finds extremely relaxing. Although, at times, he continues to have difficulty swallowing and eating, it is slowly improving. “I can eat almost anything as long as I don’t eat too much of it. Through this whole process, I’ve lost about 30 pounds and am struggling to gain some of it back,” said Paul. Other lifestyle changes include the inability to drink carbonated beverages and lie flat, so he sleeps at a 30-degree angle. He also does not have as much energy as he used to, but it is increasing with time. “Those things are a small price to pay. I have learned to be more patient and not take even the simplest things for granted. My cancer experience has given me a lot of time to think and reflect. I look at life differently than before my illness. I’ve learned a lot, and my attitude toward life has changed. I look at how lucky I am to be alive.”

“I am so appreciative of the care I received at Smilow Cancer Hospital. All of the physicians and nurses have been so wonderful and supportive. They were not only professional, but caring and compassionate as well. It was also convenient to be treated at Smilow because there are special parking areas for patients receiving radiation therapy and for those who are going for treatment at the hospital itself.”

“I also cannot say enough about the support I received from my family and friends, especially my wife, my daughter, and my son. I’m very lucky to have a daughter who is a nurse at Yale. She is a great resource and knows about the newest medical advances and fills me in. She answers my questions and explains complicated things to me. My grandchildren are the light of my life. I have a granddaughter who is 2 ½ and is a real gem, as well as a grandson who is 8 and loves all sports and activities. I’m lucky that I can continue to spend as much time as possible with them.”
“But, most importantly, is my wife, JoAnn. She has taken care of me. She’s been my main support, and she has been there for me throughout this entire experience. She went to every test and doctor’s appointment with me. When I was feeling low, she was there for me, lifting up my spirits. I would not have gotten through all of this without the support of my wife, my family, and my friends.”

“One of my best days was in September, when JoAnn and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. It was a happy and joyous occasion, combined with turning 75 years old and being able to celebrate this with my family. When I received my diagnosis, I did not expect to celebrate another anniversary or a birthday. I am so fortunate, not only because of my wife and family, but also because of the incredible physicians, nurses, and staff I encountered along this journey.”