Patient Stories

Esophageal Cancer Survivor

Dave McFadden

  • Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011
  • Started treatment at home in Alaska
  • Came to UW Medical Center for surgery

You could say that avid runner, custom woodworker, former shipwright, and self-described ex-hippy Dave McFadden was diagnosed with esophageal cancer by accident.

Early in 2011, a troubling symptom sent him to the emergency room (ER) in Anchorage, Alaska, where he lives.

“I felt a pain in my chest, and I was worried. At my age, you start to realize there are things that can go wrong in your body,” says Dave, who was 70 years old at the time.

Scans at the hospital showed his heart was fine and there was no reason to be concerned about the chest pain, which resolved. But the scans revealed something else: suspicious spots in his lungs and esophagus. The ER team recommended seeing an oncologist.

A lucky discovery

Dave’s oncologist in Anchorage ran further tests, including doing biopsies of the abnormalities—checking samples of tissue for cancer. All the spots were harmless, except one. Dave had adenocarcinoma in his esophagus.

“I was kind of shocked to learn after I was diagnosed that heartburn is a risk factor for cancer of the esophagus. I had never heard that. I thought, ‘Holy, moly, I’ve had a lot of heartburn through the years, my goodness!’ I felt the word is not out well enough about this link,” he says. Gastroesophageal reflux, or heartburn, brings acid from the stomach up into the esophagus, where it can damage the lining of this tube. Doctors can’t know for sure whether this caused Dave’s cancer. But chronic heartburn does raise the risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma. Though his chest pain wasn’t related to either reflux or cancer, Dave is fortunate that it led him to seek care. His trip to the ER might have saved his life.

“Esophageal cancer is notorious for being detected late because early symptoms are subtle or nonexistent,” says Brant Oelschlager, MD, a surgeon at the UW Center for Esophageal & Gastric Surgery. “Outcomes from treatment are dramatically improved the earlier the cancer is detected. Screening with endoscopy is easy and may save your life." Dr. Oelschlager’s practice is devoted almost entirely to the treatment of benign and malignant diseases of the esophagus and stomach. He is an international leader in the area of minimally invasive esophageal and gastric surgery.

The search for treatment

In Anchorage, Dave underwent chemotherapy and radiation to shrink his cancer. Then the oncologist recommended surgery to remove the cancerous section of the esophagus, and he suggested a surgeon in town. But after his first meeting with the local surgeon, Dave felt uneasy.

“I asked if he’d done the procedure before. He said he hadn’t done it but had assisted during a training exercise. When I tried to converse with him about other healthcare topics, like computerized medical records and Obamacare, he wasn’t very personable. The more I talked to him, the more nervous I felt,” Dave recalls. He scheduled the surgery anyway, but his doubts grew.

“After several nights lying awake thinking about it, I realized if I felt that nervous I was liable to jump up off the gurney on the way into the operating room and say, ‘No, no, I don’t want you to do it!’,” he explains.

Instead, he visited another Anchorage oncologist for a second opinion. “She unlocked the door for me, in a way, saying it’s not a bad thing to consider going down south to have a surgery like this done by someone with experience,” he says.

Expert care that’s worth the trip

Dave had already researched the procedure he was told he needed, an esophagectomy, on the UW Medicine website. Many Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) patients with esophageal cancer begin their care at the UW’s Center for Esophageal & Gastric Surgery. Impressed with the surgeons’ expertise, Dave called to find out about becoming a patient.

“The people at the front desk who deal with patients and schedule appointments did an outstanding job,” he recalls. They arranged a series of consultations to take place in a single day with Dr. Oelschlager and other team members from the SCCA Esophageal Cancer Specialty Clinic. Dave cancelled his surgery in Anchorage and flew to Seattle.

“I’m very, very, very, very pleased with my decision,” Dave stresses. “Dr. Oelschlager is very personable and very on-the-ball. I felt totally at ease with him and his team.”

His esophagectomy was scheduled for a few weeks later. Dr. Oelschlager removed the cancerous section of Dave’s esophagus, as well as some healthy tissue above and below it. He brought Dave’s stomach up to the remaining esophagus and attached it to form a complete tube for food to pass through.

Out of the ordinary, into nature

Dave’s life hadn’t been ordinary, even before cancer came along. Among his adventures and occupations, Dave spent time living with his family in a flatbed truck, “rigged out like a covered wagon,” hand-trolling for fish in a 16-foot boat off the coast of Alaska, and thinning trees on 72-acres of the state’s forested wilderness. He’s no slouch in his downtime either. A former rock climber, he regularly runs 30 to 90 minutes three times a week, even today.

His fortitude—physical and otherwise—served him well during his recovery from surgery. Within a couple of days, he was jogging in place in his hospital room for 45 minutes at a stretch. As soon as he was allowed he took walks outside around the hospital grounds and along the nearby ship canal. After a week, he was released from the hospital to stay for a few more weeks with a friend whose home is just off Seattle’s Discovery Park. There, Dave happily hiked the trails.

“I think being in decent shape to start with helped me get back to activity quickly. I just can’t be a lump in bed. Who wants to be stuck in the friggin’ hospital, even though this one has nice places where you can see the sunshine and the grass? I like Mama Nature,” says Dave. 

Within two weeks of returning to Alaska, Dave started running again, completing an eight-mile run to the top of a local peak with a 3,500-foot elevation gain.

His partner Susan also helps keep him moving. “We love to go out dancing to live music. Blue grass, rock and roll, country, reggae, whatever—we like to boogie to just about anything. Once the music starts we’re often the first ones out on the dance floor,” Susan says.

They maintain a healthy diet, cooking three meals a day at home, choosing nutritious non-processed foods, and eating a lot of wild Alaska salmon and halibut. Since his surgery, Dave can’t eat as much in one sitting because his stomach is smaller, so he tends to eat smaller meals and then supplement this throughout the day with snacks. Other than this adjustment, he finds he can eat what he likes. 

Life after cancer

When he’s not running, dancing, or cooking, Dave spends much of his time in his woodworking shop, being what he calls a “designer and maker of interesting things.” His projects range from three-legged stools and wind chimes to a whale observatory built from local Sitka spruce and red and yellow cedar at Outlook Park in Petersburg, Alaska.

“When I’m in my shop, I’m kind of in my own little world alone. So when I get out, I’m susceptible to people who want to talk or share or smile. I’m quite an optimistic person and very receptive to conscientious and friendly folks. That’s something I appreciated about the cancer team in Seattle. All the people I dealt with there were wonderful. Even when I call them now, which I haven’t needed to for a while, they’re friendly and cheerful. It’s a good, caring facility,” he says.
Besides taking a medication to control reflux, Dave is scheduled for regular checkups, but he considers himself in the clear. “There’s nothing that’s worrying me about my health at this point, nothing to be concerned about,” he says.