I was a relatively lazy person, smoked cigarettes, ate largely processed foods and was therefore, obviously, not a very healthy person. My father had just undergone his 2nd open heart surgery and mom had had a stroke. My wife and I decided we needed to do something, and do it quickly, if we were to avoid an early grave. Getting to see our grandchildren born was an important goal for us. I changed my diet, began a rigorous exercise routine which helped me to quit smoking and did everything else I could to avoid what I only recently saw as my fate.
Imagine then my surprise when just a few years later, at only age 49 and in the best health of my life, I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I was diagnosed in January 2014. It was stage II (bordering stage III) and I knew very little else at that time, except that the survival rate was woefully low. Having watched a friend go through prostate cancer treatment and fight every step of the way to reach his doctor, get information and schedule his treatments, I knew immediately I needed an alternative to the typically recommended MSK centers. I already knew of NSHOA cancer centers and Dr. Jeffrey Vacirca. We met and that first meeting spoke volumes. Given the short space available to write my story, I won’t go into too many details except to state that I was greeted with compassion and had over the next 5 hours, more than a dozen people working with me to explain what was going to be happening to and for me over the next many months. But for how graciously they pushed me through that process, it would have been entirely overwhelming. That reception and the level of caring didn’t stop, not through my initial treatment, not while I was hospitalized and not to this day. What surprised me even more was how well my wife, now about to be my caregiver, was treated and received. Not only with respect, but the team spent as much time informing her of what was going to happen and how to best deal with me during that time. More importantly, over the course of my treatments, the level of support for her was beyond measure. Support I know my friend’s wife never received in a hospital setting. As a direct result of Dr Vacirca and his staff, I was introduced to the best medical providers, each of whom practiced in a similar community based setting. My friend with treatable prostate cancer went 3 months between diagnosis and treatment. I went from diagnosis to treatment in a matter of a bit more than a week. I fully credit the speed at which I was “moved through the system” with saving my life. Had I waited longer for treatment, I may have moved to stage IV and had an incurable / inoperable situation. I went through more than 35 radiation treatments, coupled with weekly chemotherapy at NSHOA’s offices. Thereafter, I underwent an esophagectomy and spent better than the next 50 days in the hospital given the multiple complications I developed. The team at NSHOA kept in constant contact with me through the entire hospitalization process. There wasn’t a day that went by without at least someone from the practice coming to see how I was and to intercede in any way I needed them to. After my release from the hospital, over 60 pounds lighter than I went in, I spent the next 3 months at home unable to work. I remember as I was regaining strength, my first exercise routine was this: get up, sit down: get up, sit down, over and over until I couldn’t get up again – and it took no more than 20 minutes for me to get to that point. I have now gained back 40 pounds and am just 20 pounds lighter than I started. I am at the gym 5 days a week, and although I’m not nearly as fit as I once was, I will do everything in my power to be sure that I am strong enough to withstand another bout of this nefarious disease if I ever have to do so. Life is different today than it was before. Eating is difficult and in fact, eating is painful, but eat I must to survive. I sleep sitting up and can’t lie flat. I don’t seem to have the stamina I once did and I certainly don’t have the breath capacity I once had.
Last year, I joined a team sponsored by NSHOA to run a Tough Mudder. If you don’t understand what teamwork is, if you can’t imagine how these people push themselves, each other, and most importantly, their patients forward, day after day, you must come watch them in a Tough Mudder. I am grateful for the people that helped me get from diagnosis to where I am today. When I go back for an exam and see the same people who know my name, know my history and are willing to do anything to make life just a little bit better, the feeling of thanks just can’t be described. That is, in my opinion, what community oncology is all about.