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Call him persistent or stubborn, Mike Wright has never given up easily—not even when he was faced with the possibility of losing his esophagus to cancer.
But Mike’s worst dreams came true when he got the results of his latest endoscopy. He now had esophageal cancer. If there was a silver lining to this diagnosis, it was that Mike’s cancer was early stage. Mike’s doctors believed his cancer could be treated successfully with radiofrequency ablation. During this procedure, the surgeon burns pre-cancerous cells from the inner lining of the esophagus.
However, a few months later, Mike’s doctors told him that his disease was not responding to the ablation procedures. Without surgery, Mike’s cancer would have a high likelihood of spreading throughout the rest of his body. By then, it would be too late. Mortality rates exceed 87 percent for patients with advanced esophageal cancer.
Although he was shaken by the news, Mike resolved to do whatever it took to save his life. He made plans for an esophagectomy at the James Cancer Center in Columbus, Ohio. During this complex procedure, doctors would remove Mike’s esophagus—the tube that moves food from the throat to the stomach—and replace it with a part of his stomach or intestines. Mike’s doctors told him the operation would cure him of cancer. However, this procedure is risky and often causes serious complications. What’s more, he would not be able to eat certain types of food after having the procedure.
With only three weeks until surgery, Mike prepared himself for a future that would require some major lifestyle changes. Then one of Mike’s friends told him that “60 Minutes” had just featured a story about Blair A. Jobe, MD—a world famous esophageal surgeon. Dr. Jobe had successfully treated a patient with esophageal cancer using a new experimental procedure. Dr. Jobe peeled away the cancerous inner lining of the patient’s esophagus, then replaced this lining with extracellular matrix—spongy tissue from the bladder of a pig. The patient’s own stem cells eventually populated the new inner lining, enabling the esophagus to heal with less inflammation and scarring.
Mike watched the “60 Minutes” segment and could barely control his excitement. This new procedure seemed tailor made for him.
“Not only was the patient cured of cancer, but his esophagus was also preserved,” says Mike. “I knew right then and there that this procedure was for me.”
The next day, Mike left a message with Dr. Jobe’s office in Pittsburgh. Then he followed up with a fax and email. “I wasn’t going to give up. I asked them to pick me and give me a chance,” Mike recalls.
Mike’s persistence paid off. Within a week, a nurse from Dr. Jobe’s office returned Mike’s call. She told Mike that the procedure was still in its nascent stages of development. Dr. Jobe was refining some of the techniques and probably would not be doing another procedure until three months later.
“I told the nurse that I didn’t have another three months,” says Mike. “I only had three weeks.”
A few days later, the nurse called Mike, asking him if he could meet with Dr. Jobe the following week.
When Mike finally met Dr. Jobe in Pittsburgh, he was overwhelmed to hear some good news. “Dr. Jobe walked into the room and shook my hand. He told me, ‘You’re the perfect candidate! You are going to be the second person to have this new procedure for esophageal cancer. We are going to cure your cancer.’ I was the happiest person in the world that day.”
In February 2010, Dr. Jobe replaced the cancerous inner lining of Mike’s esophagus with extracellular matrix. Mike’s surgery was so successful that he was able to resume eating almost immediately. Within seven weeks, he returned to his job as a quality control officer for Diamond Innovations in Columbus. Surgery had effectively cured Mike. Because his disease was discovered early, he did not need chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Then 11 months later, Dr. Jobe surgically repaired a hiatal hernia—the root cause of Mike’s problem. An abdominal abnormality that pushes part of the stomach through the diaphragm into the chest, a hiatal hernia releases a backflow of gastric acid and bile, causing heartburn. For some individuals, such as Mike, this chronic inflammation can eventually cause Barrett’s esophagus and then esophageal cancer. Dr. Jobe recreated the valve at the junction of Mike’s esophagus and stomach to prevent the movement of fluid up into the esophagus. Today Mike does not experience the debilitating symptoms of heartburn.
“We are very pleased with how well Mike has done,” says Dr. Jobe, who now sees patients at Canonsburg General Hospital and heads the Institute for Treatment of Esophageal Disease at West Penn Allegheny Health System. “Mike hasn’t had a recurrence of cancer and his long-term prognosis is excellent. What saved Mike’s life is that he was diagnosed early and, for this, his gastroenterologist deserves all the credit. And because he was diagnosed so early, he was an ideal candidate for the extracellular matrix procedure.”
Dr. Jobe adds that esophageal cancer is a growing problem in this country. “We don’t know for sure what has led to this dramatic increase in esophageal cancer,” he points out. “But we can help patients when their disease is diagnosed early. That’s why it’s important for patients to have tests such as an endoscopy when they have persistent heartburn, have been on antacid therapy for more than five years, or have difficulty in swallowing.”
Mike says he is extremely grateful that Dr. Jobe gave him a new lease on life. “I feel blessed to have met Dr. Jobe. He not only saved my life, but he also saved my quality of life. He’s a tremendous surgeon and a wonderful person.”
Since his surgery, Mike has become an ambassador for other esophageal cancer patients. He has spoken to many cancer awareness groups throughout the country. His message is one of hope. “I tell people not to ignore the symptoms. Get screening and, if necessary, get treatment right away. And don’t give up! I’m living proof of that.”