Walter Theiss, 66, says as a person who never considered himself to be lean or slim, the loss of appetite in the winter of 2017, and the resulting rapid loss of about 18 pounds in three weeks, led him to think something wasn’t quite right.
"My primary care physician scheduled an electrocardiogram and a number of tests, which I passed with flying colors,” he says. "However, because I was also experiencing some trouble swallowing, he decided to do an upper and lower GI (gastrointestinal) test and some bloodwork; the bloodwork was off, with low hemoglobin results. Then, the upper GI test revealed that I had an esophageal tumor.”
Theiss says he never thought the test results would show cancer.
"You know, if you talk to 10 people, eight out of 10 of them are going to have some health problem—I just thought swallowing was going to be my problem,” he says. "However, I was confident that doctors could help fix this.”
Theiss says he began to do some research on local specialists and asked around about the best doctor for this type of cancer.
"We’re from Ft. Thomas, and I had a friend who lives in our neighborhood and had the same type of esophageal cancer two years earlier,” he says. "He recommended Dr. Benga (Olugbenga Olowokure, MD, an oncologist) at UC. I then mentioned Dr. Benga to my primary care physician, who told me that he was my best choice.”
Olowokure, affectionately referred to as "Dr. Benga” by patients, is an associate professor in the Division of Hematology Oncology at the UC College of Medicine, a UC Health oncologist and a member of the UC Cancer Institute. Theiss was able to get in to see Olowokure within a few weeks, and a treatment plan within the institute’s Esophageal Disease Center was made for him.
"My friend had the same treatment that I had scheduled. Chemotherapy and radiation together, then a rest period followed by surgery. The one difference was my friend had photon radiation, not proton radiation. The proton therapy facility was not available at the time,” he says. "That’s when I also met with Dr. (Jordan) Kharofa who discussed the option of proton therapy with me. One of my other friends had proton therapy about 10 years ago for another type of cancer, but he had to travel all the way to California to do so.”
Theiss would be one of the first adult esophageal cancer patient to undergo treatment at the Cincinnati Children’s/UC Health Proton Therapy Center.
Proton therapy is a form of radiation treatment used for certain types of cancers. A major advantage over traditional forms of radiotherapy is its ability to deliver radiation to a tumor area with remarkable precision, sparing healthy tissues.
Theiss began his treatment at the Proton Therapy Center in June 2017. The center, housed on the Cincinnati Children’s Liberty Campus, is only one of about 25 of its kind in the country and the only facility in the world with a room (gantry) dedicated to research; it officially opened in August 2016.
"I had chemotherapy once a week (five treatments total) at UC Health West Chester hospital, and then, I would go for radiation therapy at the proton center Monday through Friday for 28 treatments,” he says, adding that as a business owner—Graphic Information Systems, Inc.—he continued to go into work for half days at his office in Roselawn. "Chemotherapy was a breeze for me, thankfully, and the proton center put me at ease because it wasn’t like a hospital at all. It was comforting.”
After completing chemotherapy and radiation in mid-July, Theiss had surgery to remove the tumor, which had shrunk substantially, and some remaining lymph nodes surrounding it. Sandra Starnes, MD, professor and Dr. John B. Flege Jr. Chair in Cardiothoracic Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, and Jeffrey Sussman, MD, professor of surgery, both of the UC College of Medicine, UC Health surgeons and members of the UC Cancer Institute, performed the surgery. Theiss says while the recovery was tough, he has no problems swallowing or eating regular foods.
"Dr. Sussman told me if all of his patients were like me, his job would be a lot easier,” Theiss says. "Positive thinking really helped me. I just kept thinking, ‘You know, there’s someone out there who is worse off than I am.’”
Theiss says his entire team at UC was just "super.”
"Dr. Benga said such a powerful prayer with my wife, Vicki, and I before my surgery,” he says. "That really made an impact on me. Positive thinking, the power of prayer and a good health care team helped me through it all.”
Theiss says now his focus is on a move he’s been planning for several years.
"We’re building a new home in Hilton Head and finally moving there in the spring,” he says, adding that he found out a day after breaking ground on the new property that he had cancer. "It’s a nice way to truly complete this journey. And now, as someone who was always told to lose weight, I have to worry about keeping weight on—not a bad problem to have.”