At first, Richard “Ricky” Harveston couldn’t swallow his hamburger bites. Then, he struggled to drink his milk, and what he managed to get down came right back up.
Ricky’s local Orange, Texas, doctor said that he had acid reflux. “But in the back of my mind, I knew what wrong with me,” Ricky says. His dad died from esophageal cancer at age 74, and his half-brother died of the disease at age 46. Like Ricky, both were heavy smokers. So, he went to a local oncologist.
Ricky’s intuition was right. In 2013, at age 53, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
“I cried,” Ricky says. His dad had opted not to be treated, and his half-brother received chemotherapy, but refused radiation, at a free clinic in Mississippi. “My dad dwindled to nothing, and my half-brother’s tumor spread to his brain and spine.”
Hoping for a different outcome, Ricky started treatment at a cancer center in southeast Texas.
Face esophageal cancer treatment with a strong caregiver
“Chemotherapy and radiation almost destroyed me,” Ricky says. “It was so bad, I wanted to quit with only three radiation treatments left and accept death as the consequence.” But, he didn’t quit.
“You have to have a strong caregiver,” Ricky says. His caregiver was his ex-wife, Eileen. “We were married for 10 years and had been divorced for two years when I was diagnosed,” he says. “She wanted to come see me, so I said OK, what do I have to lose?” She hasn’t left his side since.
Eileen cared for Ricky nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the toughest times. She slept on tiny couches, was comfortable with all the uncomfortable things and advocated for his care. Eileen also kept Ricky mentally tough and motivated him to get better.
Get to MD Anderson for surgery
Ricky was declared cancer-free in 2014, and returned to work full time. But after his follow-up CT scan 10 months later, he learned his cancer had returned and he needed surgery.
Ricky was too scared and declined surgery. He chose more chemotherapy and radiation. But nearly four weeks into treatment at his local clinic, his tumor wasn’t shrinking. His doctor referred him to MD Anderson for surgery.
Still, Ricky was bouncing back and forth about surgery. “I was thinking one in 20 die on the table, so what if I’m that one?” he says. Then, he researched his MD Anderson thoracic surgeon Jack A. Roth, M.D. “I looked at his record and realized, wow, I have a good one.”
He confesses, though, that before surgery he ditched his 1995 Ford Explorer for a 2001 Camaro. “If I was going out, it wasn’t going to be in a grocery-getter.”
Ricky had an esophagectomy, surgery to remove half of his esophagus, one-third of his stomach and 12 lymph nodes, in April 2015. His stomach was then pulled up and sewed to his esophagus.
On day three of his 15-day recovery in the hospital, Ricky still hadn’t moved from his bed. Checking on patients was thoracic surgeon Wayne Hofstetter, M.D., who bluntly told him to start walking the halls if he wanted to live. “I haven’t had my butt chewed like that in ages,” Ricky says. “And even though it hurt my feelings, it was exactly the truth I needed.”
A surgical first for Houston
While his cancer was at bay, a follow-up CT scan in 2016 revealed Ricky had an extensive aortoiliac aneurysm. In most cases, the options to repair extensive aneurysms are either open surgery or a simple reconstruction that plugs some of the iliac artery branches. Both options can leave the patient with significant complications.
Luckily for Ricky, vascular surgeons George Pisimisis, M.D., and Tam Huynh, M.D., and interventional radiologist Kamran Ahrar, M.D., knew of a new device that could fix Ricky’s aneurysm. On May 11, Ricky had a three-hour surgery to implant the endograft – a surgical first for Houston.
“Before, we could treat about 60% of patients with aneurysms,” Pisimisis says. “Now we can treat up to 90% with better outcomes.”
Take life back despite esophageal cancer
After 40 years of smoking, Ricky quit for good in 2014 during his second round of chemotherapy. “I didn’t have the willpower to walk away from cigarettes until it was almost too late,” he says, advising other smokers to “quit as fast as you can.”
Now, his outlook on life has changed, despite learning recently that his esophageal cancer has returned. What matters to Ricky is spending time with Eileen and their 13 grandkids on his three-and-a-half acres of land. “I appreciate every little moment with my family,” he says.
“MD Anderson saved my life and made me happier, which proves what I’ve been saying all along,” Ricky says. “MD Anderson is the eighth wonder of the world.”