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A New Lease on Life after Esophageal Cancer Treatment

contributed by Mike MacFarlane, esophagectomy patient

Mike McFarlane and his wife
Resources from Thoracic Surgery at U-M helped Mike McFarlane and his wife get back to the things they enjoy–like riding his motorcycle.

In October 2010, I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer by doctors here in Saginaw. They referred me to the University of Michigan for further evaluation and treatment. The treatment plan involved a combination of radiation and chemotherapy, which I received in Saginaw, followed by surgery at the University of Michigan.

I tolerated the chemo and radiation well. I went in for treatment in the morning and then to work. I work in the tent rental business and the winter is our slow time, so it was mostly answering phones and office work, but I was happy to be able to continue working through my treatment. On February 17, 2011, Dr. Reddy removed most of my esophagus. During the procedure, called a transhiatal esophagectomy, he pulled my stomach up and reattached it to the remaining top of my esophagus.

Although the surgery sounds awful, I feel I personally handled it well. I was in the hospital for a total of seven days and was able to walk the day following surgery. I had a feeding tube, but only used it during my stay in the hospital. Dr. Reddy’s team and everyone at the hospital prepared me and my wife for the surgery and what to expect afterwards. This made my recovery easier to handle.

The first week at home was pretty rough, but my wife really helped me that week with things that were too hard to do myself. I adjusted to the new way of eating. I had to eat smaller portions and really chew up my food well. I only had a few eating restrictions including bread, carbonated beverages, etc. Only by trying different foods after the surgery did I learn what was tolerable for me. And now, as long as I can swallow it I can eat it.

In May of that year, I started to have trouble swallowing. We went to see Dr. Reddy who told me I had a stricture (a tightening) from where the surgery was healing. He put a tube down my throat to stretch the stricture and break up the scar tissue. He taught me and my wife how to do that at home. Putting a tube down my throat isn’t my favorite thing to do, but it helps keep the new passageway to my stomach open, so I do it. At first, I did it every day for 30 days, then I tapered off. Now I do it about once every five weeks.

Because we live in Saginaw, I wasn’t able to participate in some of the patient support groups at the University of Michigan, but I did connect with a video conference support group once. It was interesting to hear other people who were dealing with a similar situation. It was helpful to hear other people talking about the issues they faced and how they dealt with them. It gave me comfort to know I was not alone.

It's been years since my surgery, I’m healthy and grateful to Dr. Reddy and his team for their expertise. When he told me back then that I’d be fine and things would get easier with time, it was hard to believe -- but he was right, things really do get better! My wife and I enjoy riding my motorcycle, working in the yard, and spending time with our children and grandchildren. As previously stated, I eat much smaller meals now. Also, I try not to eat or drink after 8 p.m. I’m much healthier now.

For anyone facing a similar situation, my advice is to go into it pumped up with a good attitude and follow the doctor’s orders. It’s worked for me!

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