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Surviving Esophageal Cancer Takes a Dream Team of Experts

May 30, 2023

Photo of Gary R, esophageal cancer survivor.

Swallowing is one of those natural reflexes that warrants little thought. But when swallowing food or beverages becomes difficult, it could be a sign that something’s not quite right. That’s what happened to Gary R. during the early months of 2019. He noticed that certain foods, especially apples, were getting caught in his throat and finally decided to see his doctor about it, hoping for a simple solution.

Starting With Primary Care

“I was lucky to have had symptoms,” says Gary, who went to his primary care doctor, John Nevins, DO, first. Dr. Nevins thought it was probably just acid reflux but wanted to be sure there was nothing else going on, so he recommended an endoscopy for further evaluation.

A Visit to the Gastroenterologist

It was May 2019 and for Gary, there was no time for a health problem. As a professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, Gary was wrapping up his semester and preparing for his annual study-abroad trip to his homeland in England. He did this each summer, taking students to study international communication at an affiliate campus in Wroxton in Oxfordshire.

But Gary squeezed in an appointment with Henry Scott Dinneen, DO, a gastroenterologist at Atlantic Health System and — in hindsight — was very thankful he did. While scoping Gary’s esophagus, Dr. Dinneen found something that wasn’t a routine reflux problem. He saw a tumor in Gary’s esophagus and immediately gathered information, including a biopsy. After seeing results from Gary’s ultrasound endoscopy, CT scan and biopsy, Dr. Dinneen arranged for Gary to meet with a thoracic surgeon.

“Dr. Dinneen had expeditiously diagnosed the tumor and referred Gary to me for biopsy-proven esophageal cancer,” says Mark Widmann, MD, thoracic surgical oncologist at Atlantic Health System. “Given the intermediate stage of Gary’s cancer, a multi-disciplinary team was built around him at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown Medical Center to manage his care.”

Building Gary’s Oncology Team

According to the American Association of Cancer Research, esophageal cancer is relatively rare, with fewer than 20,000 cases expected to be diagnosed in the United States this year. But the earlier the diagnosis, the greater a patient’s chance of recovery. So, when Gary met with Dr. Widmann, he was hopeful when the doctor sat down confidently with paper and pencil and drew out exactly how he would swiftly and dexterously remove Gary’s tumor.

Gary was also referred for evaluations with medical oncologist Angela Alistar, MD, and radiation oncologist Yana Goldberg, MD, prior to his planned resection. Additionally, a nurse navigator, Mary Mason, was assigned as Gary’s point person to coordinate the doctors’ schedules, services and to answer any questions.

“Mary coordinated all of my care. She was always available to answer questions and she even walked me down to Dr. Alistar’s and Dr. Goldberg’s offices at Morristown Medical Center to introduce me and set up my chemo and radiation appointments,” says Gary who marveled at his medical ‘dream team’. “I basically lived at the hospital that summer. No students. No teaching, No trips. Just meeting with my doctors and focusing on getting better.”

A Surgical Success Story

By September, Gary had completed his up-front chemoradiation therapy and was recovering from a five-hour transhiatal esophagectomy and lymph node removal surgery. “From an oncological perspective, we had achieved the outcomes we’d hoped for,” says Dr. Widmann. “From a surgical perspective, Gary recovered quickly and resumed leading an excellent quality of life.”

Gary agrees, adding that oncology dietitian Kathryn Hamilton was influential in easing the foods he loves back into his diet. “I am back to eating apples again. I’m able to eat and swallow with absolutely no discomfort, and I am back to my normal life,” he says, looking forward to his upcoming summer trip to England with his students. “These trips are what keep me going,” says Gary. “Each time I go, it is so emotional to walk through those college doors at Wroxton — just to be able to there again and share the rich history with my students.”

Support for the Long Run

Today, more than three years post-recovery, Gary is feeling lucky. He continues to see Dr. Alistar every six months until he reaches his five-year mark of being cancer-free. He also sees Mary for scheduling bi-annual follow-ups and remains connected to his cancer survivor support groups at Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown Medical Center.

“I was so inspired by the people going through recovery, and those who had recovered,” he says. “Hearing their stories gave me hope. I am lucky to have made it through and I am grateful for everything this medical team did for me. They really kept an eye on me, and I’m incredibly thankful.”

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