Esophageal cancer caregiver: I’m grateful we came to MD Anderson
Jo Ann Foster
My husband, Gary, had been healthy and active before he began complaining of a backache at age 67. Then he started having trouble swallowing. Food just wouldn’t go down.
A doctor in our hometown of Russellville, Arkansas, ordered an endoscopy to examine Gary’s esophagus.
After reviewing the results, the doctor pulled me aside. "It’s not good,” he said. “Your husband has esophageal cancer.”
The tumor was at the end of his esophagus, the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. That explained Gary’s backaches and swallowing problems.
I struggled to comprehend his words. Things went fuzzy. “What?” I thought. “He can’t have cancer.”
The doctor offered little hope. He told us to go home and focus on Gary’s comfort.
For a few days, I grieved. I struggled to adjust to the changes that came along with Gary’s diagnosis. The tumor had grown so large that he was unable to eat solid food. He’d have to stick to diet of purees and soups.
“Just breathe, Mama, breathe,” my oldest daughter kept saying to me.
Esophageal cancer experts gave us confidence with specialized treatment plan
I decided to take action. I called MD Anderson. That turned out to be the best decision ever. We were given an appointment, and within a few days, we were in Houston.
As soon as we walked through the doors of MD Anderson on June 11, 2018, we felt hope.
Radiation oncologist Stephen Chun, M.D., was the first doctor we met. He was brilliant and positive, and put us at ease. He told us about proton therapy, a type of radiation therapy that uses a beam of protons to deliver radiation directly to the tumor, destroying cancer cells while sparing healthy tissues. Dr. Chun believed proton therapy, along with chemotherapy, could shrink Gary’s tumor, making it easier to surgically remove.
Each doctor we met was so confident and supportive. Thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon Ara Vaporciyan, M.D., sketched Gary’s tumor in my notebook and showed us how he planned to remove the tumor with a surgery called a transthoracic esophagectomy. First, he’d remove the cancerous portion of the esophagus. Then, through a second incision, he’d pull Gary’s stomach up into his chest and connect it to the remaining upper-third of the esophagus.
“This is doable!” I remember him saying with a smile. “Go get the proton therapy and chemotherapy and plenty of rest. Then we’ll do surgery.”
“What? You mean you can help him?” I thought. “Oh, my! Praise God!”
For six weeks, Gary underwent proton therapy Monday through Friday, and chemotherapy every Wednesday. He typically suffered from nausea after chemotherapy. An MD Anderson dietitian taught us about foods that would help him feel full without upsetting his stomach.
During this time, we stayed in Houston at a nearby condo, driving back to Arkansas only a few times. Our three adult children called and texted us frequently to check in, and our six grandchildren sent us handmade artwork to lift our spirits.
After Gary completed chemotherapy and proton therapy, we returned home to Arkansas for two months to rest and prepare for his surgery. On Oct. 24, 2018, Dr. Vaporciyan successfully performed the transthoracic esophagectomy. After Gary’s seven-day hospital stay, we moved to an apartment near MD Anderson. We stayed there for 48 days while Gary recovered.
Helping my husband with his feeding tube
During this time, I gave Gary his liquid meals and medicine through a feeding tube. I was initially nervous. I’m a retired school teacher, not a nurse. But I took classes for caregivers at MD Anderson and learned how to do it.
Whenever I had questions or needed help, Gary’s care team took my calls and walked me through the steps. It didn’t matter if it was 2 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Once when Gary had extreme nausea, I reached out to his care team. They explained that he was likely dehydrated, and walked me how to give him water through an IV attached to his feeding tube. We saw immediate changes to Gary’s nausea level.
Then, just before Christmas, we received the best news. Gary was cancer-free, and we could return home.
One day at a time
Looking back, we got through that period one day at a time. After Gary had had his feeding tube removed, he was gradually able to begin eating regular foods.
The journey wasn’t easy for Gary or for me as his caregiver, but it was certainly worthwhile. And none of it would have been possible if we hadn’t made that call to MD Anderson.