He was nervous about just one thing. Not the seven-and-a-half-hour surgery or the weeks of recovery on a feeding tube. For Dustin, the hardest part was knowing he was about to be away from his wife and four children for about 10 days.
“I’m glad the visitor policy is in place. The processes and policies at MD Anderson are top-notch, and I feel completely safe,” Dustin says. “But knowing I couldn’t have my family with me took the wind out of me. I had this huge support system and they couldn’t be there with me.”
“Fortunately,” he says, “we found ways to stay in touch, and my team at MD Anderson helped me through this tough time.”
Coming to MD Anderson for esophageal cancer surgery
When Dustin first came to MD Anderson in late February after being diagnosed with stage III adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, he brought his wife, dad and stepmom.
At his first appointment, he met his care team, which included oncologist Mariela Blum Murphy, M.D., radiation oncologist Michael O’Reilly, M.D., and thoracic surgeon Ara Vaporciyan, M.D. Together, they planned his treatment, which would start with six weeks of chemoradiation. That meant he would undergo chemotherapy while simultaneously getting daily doses of radiation therapy. The goal was to shrink the tumor that stretched from the bottom third of his esophagus into the upper portions of his stomach. Once the tumor had shrunk, he would undergo surgery to remove the rest of it.
“We came to MD Anderson because everyone we talked to had told us it was the best. After being there it was easy to see why,” Dustin says. “I was confident in the plan my doctors had laid out for me.”
Dustin’s initial esophageal cancer treatment
Dustin started chemoradiation in March. Every Monday, he had a three-hour chemotherapy infusion. He wore a chemotherapy pump through Friday.
“That pump felt like a part of me. I took it with me everywhere I went. And it wasn’t a part of me I necessarily liked,” Dustin says. “But I was a free man on Saturdays and Sundays.”
In addition, he had daily radiation therapy. Each morning his wife or dad would drop him off at MD Anderson, then go get breakfast while he had his treatment.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Dustin says. “I had a great group of radiotherapists who always put my favorite music on, made me comfortable and asked how I was doing. They made something that was not so enjoyable almost enjoyable.”
At the start of his treatment, Dustin and his family rented a studio apartment in Houston. Originally, they flew home to Georgia on the weekends, but as COVID-19 cases increased across the country, they decided it was safer to stay in Houston for the rest of his treatment.
“It worked out better because I was not feeling up to traveling,” Dustin says.
Esophageal cancer surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic
After a short return home in May, Dustin, his wife, his dad and stepmom, and his two oldest children traveled to Houston in June for his surgery.
During the procedure, called a transthoracic (or Lewis) esophagectomy, Vaporciyan removed the tumor, part of the esophagus above it and some of the stomach below it. His surgery team also removed Dustin’s gallbladder because it had a stone in it. They then pulled his stomach up to where his esophagus now ended and connected the two so he could swallow again.
After surgery, Dustin stayed in his hospital bed two days, just resting. He didn’t even turn on the TV. But he made sure to FaceTime with his family multiple times a day to help lift his spirits.
Knowing he was missing his family, Dustin’s care team, especially his nurses, stopped by to visit often and went out of their way to make sure he was comfortable. They encouraged him to take walks down the hall to help ease his recovery.
COVID-19 visitor policy didn’t keep him from connecting with family
Four days after his surgery, Dustin took a walk and stopped to look out the window in the floor’s common area. Although he was seven stories up, he immediately recognized the view, just outside a parking garage. He called his wife and asked her to bring the kids to that spot. For the first time in four days, Dustin was able to see his family in person, even if it was at a distance.
“When I saw them standing on the sidewalk, I burst into tears,” Dustin says. “It was a sight for sore eyes.”
Vaporciyan, who was checking on his patients on the floor, spotted Dustin standing near the window. Dustin “introduced” Vaporciyan to his family over speakerphone, and Vaporciyan gave an update: Dustin, who was cancer-free after the surgery, was continuing to do well. Vaporciyan even took a picture of Dustin and his family through the window before visiting his next patient.
“I was so happy Dustin was able to see his family, and it showed what an important part of the recovery process that is. It’s motivated me to do everything I can to help my patients stay in touch with their families while upholding our necessary visitor policies,” Vaporciyan says. “This has showed me the courage and bravery our patients have.”
Life after esophageal cancer
Seven days after his surgery, Dustin returned home. About a month later, his feeding tube was removed. Little by little, he’s been able to expand the portion sizes of his meals. He plans to come to MD Anderson every three months for follow-up appointments.
“It’s been baby steps,” he says. “But I’m feeling some normalcy again.”