Steven O.

Esophageal Cancer - Stage 3

Stephen O'Grady

I was lucky to have found City of Hope, where my care team worked tirelessly to help me through a very serious surgery, treatment and recovery. I continue to return to City of Hope every six months for dilations of the esophagus. I truly believe that the whole-person approach to care I received brought me through to the other side, so that I can now urge others to heed the signs. That is my message.

This testimonial includes a description of this patient’s actual medical results. Those results may not be typical or expected for the particular disease type described in this testimonial. You should not expect to experience these results. 

I grew up on a farm in southern Iowa. My earliest memories are of blacksmiths and family meals. I also remember the stomach pain that certain foods caused. In those days, that kind of discomfort was just something to put up with.

As I grew up, my stomach pain continued. Baking soda water was the ultimate pain reliever. Soda pop worked sometimes. But as I passed through my teens and into my 20s, the discomfort continued. I enlisted in the Navy, where coffee and greasy foods were the order of the day. Needless to say, the heartburn worsened. By the time I turned 30, I’d been prescribed a couple of different medications.

In 1999, my gallbladder was removed by laparoscopic surgery. Three days later, I returned to the emergency room in excruciating pain. Later, I was told that I’d been suffering from peritonitis, and I underwent another extensive surgery. At the time, I was working as an emergency medical technician (EMT), along with running a production blacksmith shop and operating a lift truck on a warehouse floor. After the surgery, I didn’t work for two months and lifted nothing heavier than a loaf of bread.

The symptoms continue

During the 12 years following that surgery, I continued to have abdominal cramping; however, I was alive and regained most of my strength. The heartburn improved, but I often had fluid coming up my throat. And on occasion, the backed-up fluid would even block my airway and wake me in the middle of the night. 

My solution at the time was to avoid eating late and sleep on my left side. I did not pursue any further medical attention. I just lived with the pain, as many of us do. I worked 12-hour shifts and drank coffee mixed with hot chocolate to keep my energy level up. Time passed. The reflux continued. In 2011, I found out that a childhood friend, who had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer years earlier, passed away from the disease.

It was hard to believe, but in the same year, I received a phone call from another old friend, who was also diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He did seek treatment near home; however, he did eventually pass from the disease as well. This was the second personal friend I had lost to this cancer.

The loss of my two friends hit me hard, but I never connected any dots with my own life. I never stopped to wonder if the symptoms I’d been experiencing were signs of a more serious problem. And although the heartburn continued, by 2012, I was in less pain than I had been at other times in my life.

In the late spring of 2012, swallowing started becoming painful and difficult. I didn’t tell anyone. In retrospect, I was being too stoic and too hardheaded about admitting I was in pain. But then came the morning when swallowing was so painful that I could not make it to work. On a Sunday morning that last week in July, I could not swallow coffee without pain.

A swift diagnosis and a rigorous treatment

I contacted a gastroenterologist, who performed an examination and told me that I had a tumor the size of my fist at the base of my esophagus. A biopsy confirmed that I had stage 3 esophageal cancer. What made the news of my diagnosis even more difficult was that it came 38 days after the passing of my friend from the same cancer. I underwent many tests, and then 28 rounds of radiation, followed by several rounds of chemotherapy. Despite my treatments, the cancer was still prevailing.

Feeling like I could do more, I decided to explore my treatment options. In November 2012, I contacted and moved my care to Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA)* in Zion, Illinois, which is about 45 minutes north of Chicago. My care team recommended surgery to remove the cancer that remained in my body. I agreed, and my esophagus was removed. My hospital recovery lasted 28 days. After I recuperated, I had three months of chemotherapy. In April 2013, a scheduled follow-up scan showed no visible signs of cancer. I am so grateful for the exceptional medical care that I have received at CTCA®.

Learning the lessons

The esophagostomy surgery was difficult. I basically had to learn how to eat again, but the post-care I received was tremendous. I felt remorseful for some time afterward. Why didn’t I see the signs sooner? Gradually, as I learned how to eat again and regained my strength, I also came to see that I was given the gift of survival, and perhaps I had learned a lesson that I could now share with others.

It is like that old joke about the man who so strongly believes God will save him from the flood that he rejects all the help that comes his way, which, of course, God later reveals as His own workings. In the version of that story I was told, the man is allowed to live as long as he agrees to share the lesson he has learned with others. I feel like that man now: I am spreading the word to others about paying attention to the early warning signs of esophageal cancer, which can include things like heartburn, swallowing difficulties and chest pains.

Symptoms are warnings

Now I am adamant in my message: If you have symptoms, don’t ignore them. Don’t ignore pain. Pain is your body telling your mind to pay attention. It is a symptom of underlying illness, serious or not. Not all symptoms indicate cancer, of course. But we need to listen to our bodies so that the underlying cause can be addressed and healed.

I have lost many more friends to esophageal cancer, and yet many people are not aware of this disease. I work hard now to raise awareness about the early warning signs of esophageal cancer.

Today, I have had five years with no evidence of cancer. In 2017, I attended Celebrate Life® at CTCA and had my leaf placed on one of the Trees of Life. I have researched the survival rates for esophageal cancer and feel like being where I am today is a miracle. I was lucky to have found CTCA, where my care team worked tirelessly to help me through a very serious surgery, treatment and recovery. I continue to return to CTCA every six months for dilations of the esophagus. I truly believe that the whole-person approach to care I received brought me through to the other side, so that I can now urge others to heed the signs. That is my message.

* Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) is now City of Hope®, working together to expand patient access to personalized, comprehensive cancer care. Because this patient testimonial was written and published before CTCA® and City of Hope joined forces, mentions of legacy CTCA locations have not been updated in the interest of maintaining the patient’s original voice and story details.