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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Time sure flies when you're having fun?

It's really hard to believe, but two years ago this week I first started noticing something wrong.

Catherine and I were on our vacation -- a drive from Central Florida to Yellowstone National Park and back via Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and several other stops -- when I became nauseated at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant. It happened again the following night after a late meal. And again later at a casino in South Dakota.

I dismissed the symptoms. I was on a diet. I was traveling and not drinking enough. I thought the two were causing food to just not make it all the way down.

After the two-week trip, I traveled to South Florida, where my mother was about to have a cardiac catheterization. I dismissed the symptoms more in the coming weeks and months as my mother was swept into a deeper illness following open-heart surgery. My inability to even eat a doughnut as I drove to or from South Florida was ignored as a diet issue. I actually kept extra grocery bags in my car in case I gagged while driving. I was that ignorant as to what was happening to my body.

I couldn't check in to see a doctor; I had work during the week and on weekends I was visiting my ailing mother. I just didn't have the time.

But Mom was falling deeper and deeper into a medical nightmare and I finally listened to my wife Catherine and went to see my doctor.

Dr. John Pfeiffer in Celebration, Fla., suggested I needed to see Dr. Phillip Styne. He suspected the sphincter of my esophagus was not dilating properly and that Dr. Styne could enlarge the opening during an endoscopic exam. There was a very small chance I had cancer of the esophagus, Dr. Pfeiffer said, but I was too young and he'd never come across an esophageal cancer patient. He doubted that's what I had, though the chance was there.

I'll never forget Dr. Styne's greeting to me as I awakened from the anesthesia of that endoscopy. He told me there was some "swelling" and -- drum roll -- he took a biopsy.

This was on a Thursday. Talk about a miserable weekend.

But by Monday it was confirmed. Dr. David Diamond, who would become my radio-oncologist, called to say I did have cancer and I needed to get in pronto. I needed to see Dr. Lee Zehngebot, my oncologist. Together, this team -- Styne, Zehngebot and Diamond -- plus, later, Dr. Joseph Boyer, would be the men who saved my life.

But I digress.

Dr. Z explained that esophageal cancer was rare and deadly. In my case, it was likely caused by a combination of factors, including years of heartburn treated with antacids but no real medicines. My odds were not good, but the docs were not ready to write me off just yet.

Dr. Diamond initially told me I was stage 2 to 3. Not good. He said I had a 50-50 chance of survival. Again, not good. But each step of my treatment could lead to a new assessment. As I passed a new threshold, I'd be re-assessed. Still, 50-50 meant I had as good a chance to live as to die.

I chose to live -- though later during treatments I briefly questioned the sanity of that choice.

In the weeks that followed I underwent daily zaps of radiation, heavy-duty jolts of X-ray-like doses of isotopes I'm not too familiar with that, weeks later, I'd learn affected my liver and other hot-spots in my body, which resembled new cases of cancer. Thankfully, biopsies would find that not to be the case.

I also was attached 24/7 for seven weeks to a chemo pump injecting poison directly into my jugular vein.

This one-two punch sapped me of my strength and, at times, my will. But I didn't want to let depression get the best of me. I tried to remain focused and positive. I would not be distracted by my condition or the deteriorating state of my ailing mother.

After these treatments were completed I had about a month of a "cooling-off period" to recover before major surgery to dissect and resect my esophagus, stomach and lymphatic system in my chest. Also during this time, my Mom seemed to be getting mildly better. We were able to move her from the hospital in Fort Lauderdale to a rehab center in Boca Raton, then, days before daughter Jennifer's marriage to Chris Kuz, to a rehab center in Orlando.

I finally told Mom about my cancer and how I was doing pretty well. I mean, I hadn't died during the chemo (several people had during trials of the treatment) and I was still standing. We moved her belongings from her apartment in South Florida to our garage. A week before my surgery the weekend before Christmas 2007, I traded in my beloved Mazda RX-8 sports car for a larger and easier to enter Saturn Vue SUV. I'd never be able to squeeze into the RX-8 after my surgery, and I'd need the SUV to haul Mom's oxygen tanks after she was discharged from treatments.

Mom had a couple of setbacks in the interim, and on Dec. 21 I underwent surgery. I had an esophago-gastrectomy -- basically, most of my esophagus was cut away. To replace it, my stomach was cut, spliced, pasted and pureed into a faux esophagus and a smaller stomach, now planted in my chest not far from my heart.

It took about three weeks to be discharged from the hospital and another several weeks to recover before returning to work.

Since then, I lost my mother, I've regained about 15 pounds but still am far lighter than I was during those days of dieting two years ago.

Like I tell friends and others, I like the results but I would not recommend the diet program.

So, friends, it comes down to this as has reached more than 19,000 page views, if you have heartburn, then lose it; if you have problems swallowing; if you suspect something amiss in your digestive system, please see a doctor and be open to treatments. Even if the dreaded "C-word" -- cancer -- is the diagnosis.

Two years later and I'm still here.