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Robert: Esophageal Cancer Survivor

Dedicated to tomorrow's blessing

When I was diagnosed with stage III esophageal cancer my wife was 15 weeks pregnant. I had been having difficulty swallowing and noticed some back pain, but attributed it to acid reflux and stress. It wasn’t until I fainted at work and was rushed to the hospital that we discovered something more serious was wrong. An endoscopy revealed a large tumor that had migrated to my surrounding lymph nodes; a tumor they determined was too large to remove. My medical oncologist at Middlesex Hospital, Dr. Mark Kimmel, recommended that I speak with Dr. Frank Detterbeck, Surgical Director of the Yale Cancer Center Thoracic Oncology Program and Professor of Surgery at Yale School of Medicine, and Dr. Jonathan Knisely, Associate Professor of Therapeutic Radiology at Yale School of Medicine. I met first with Dr. Knisely and we put my treatment plan for radiation into action.

I then met with Dr. Detterbeck, and during my first consult with him I was introduced to Dr. Daniel Boffa, Assistant Professor of Surgery at Yale School of Medicine, and a member of the Thoracic Oncology Program. Dr. Boffa explained that the best chance to remove the whole tumor before it spread was a relatively new procedure called a Minimally Invasive Esophagectomy (MIE). MIE is a video-assisted surgical procedure that uses very small incisions and decreases recovery time by half. Dr. Boffa is an expert at minimally invasive surgery, and has extensive experience operating with MIE.

Before I could proceed to surgery, however, Dr. Boffa, along with Dr. Knisely and Dr. Kimmel, agreed that they would have to shrink the tumor first. I was only 38 and my young age was an advantage, it meant my body could withstand very aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments to shrink the tumor. I received radiation every day for 5 weeks, as well as two very aggressive rounds of chemotherapy. Throughout this process there were happy moments. One of those moments came when my wife found out that we would be having a boy. I knew I needed to be around long enough to see him, and every day after that would be an added blessing. My incentive to survive was seeing my son born, and watching my two young daughters grow up.

There were no complications with the surgery, and I’m about to complete my last round of chemotherapy. No one wants to find themselves in a situation like this, but if you do, the best thing is to be prepared for whatever lies ahead. Dr. Boffa and all of the staff at Yale Cancer Center went above and beyond what we thought possible. My wife was eight months pregnant when I had my surgery and she couldn’t stay at the hospital, but they contacted her with updates throughout the procedure so she wasn’t left to wonder. This level of care was just amazing to me. My wife and I don’t like to think about what would have happened if Dr. Boffa had not been the one to perform my surgery. It was comforting to know that I was receiving the best care possible.

Looking back, it seems like we only dwelled on the diagnosis for a short time, but I’m sure it must have been longer. As my wife says, we had to get into “Deal with it mode,” and make sure we educated ourselves and had a plan. I don’t know how I would have gotten through this experience without my wife and my family. Whenever we received good news and bad news, we would stay with the good news and just keep pushing forward.