Russell McElfresh had a long history of chronic gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD)—including Barrett’s esophagus—so he always knew he was at greater risk for esophageal cancer. It didn’t lessen the impact of his diagnosis in early 2009.
“When they told me I had cancer, it kind of wobbled my knees a little. I thought: ‘Did you say cancer?’ I had a clean bill of health. I didn’t feel any different,” he recalls. “But what can you do? It happened, so now I’m just going to take care of it and move on with my life.”
Esophageal cancer is a rare but sneaky disease, so early detection and intervention is key for patients who suffer from the disease.
Research suggests that people like McElfresh who have a history of chronic GERD and Barrett’s esophagus are up to 40 times more likely to get esophageal adenocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer that starts in glandular cells responsible for creating and secreting mucus from the esophagus.
McElfresh’s cancer was discovered during a screening exam with UC Physicians (UCP) digestive diseases expert Nathan Schmule-witz, MD. The cancer couldn’t be removed using ultrasound scoping technology, so he was referred to the multidisciplinary esophageal cancer team at University Hospital, made up of UCP thoracic surgeons Michael Reed, MD, and Sandra Starnes, MD, and surgical oncologists Jeffrey Sussman, MD, and Syed Ahmad, MD.
“When they told me I had to have surgery, I expected major cuts down my front and around my back and to be in the hospital—and in pain—for a long time,” says McElfresh, 41, of Monroe, Ohio.
“I was relieved that they were able to do the surgery with smaller incisions. I’m still recovering, but I’m feeling pretty darn good considering I just had major surgery.”
McElfresh underwent one of the first minimally invasive esophagectomy procedures in Greater Cincinnati on April 10, 2009, at University Hospital (UH) He was released from the hospital in just over a week, several days earlier than with standard open surgery.
The goal of an esophagectomy operation is two-fold: to remove the cancerous tumor and enough surrounding tissue to ensure cancer-free margins and to re-establish gastrointestinal continuity. Within the University Hospital team, surgical oncologists use laparoscopy to completely mobilize the stomach and other associated steps in the operation.
The thoracic surgeons remove the tumor in the chest and any necessary surrounding tissue using video-assisted thoracoscopic sur-gery. Both techniques require only a few small incisions in the abdomen and chest to insert the minimally invasive tools used to operate.
“In the medical community, I imagine these guys have rock star status. I don’t normally talk about people like this, but they were truly incredible,” adds McElfresh.
“When I went in for my appointment, I got a vibe that these guys really knew what they were doing and I knew I was in good hands.”
McElfresh says he’s eager to get the cancer behind him so he can get back to his job, his golf game and summer activities with his family—including his wife, Kristie, two children and three grandchildren.
People with Barrett’s esophagus and others at high risk should be screened regularly to look for cancer of the esophagus. Symptoms of esophageal cancer often do not occur until the disease has progressed significantly, but can include trouble swallowing, pain in the mid-chest and weight loss.
For esophageal screenings, call (513) 475-7505. Appointments are available at University Hospital and West Chester Medical Center.
For surgery appointments, call (513) 475-8787. UC surgeons see patients at various locations, including the Medical Arts Building in Clifton, University Pointe in West Chester and the UC Barrett Cancer Institute at University Hospital in Clifton.
For more information about the specialties treated at UC, visit www.ucphysicians.com.