Patient Stories

Esophageal Cancer Survivor

Mark Ragolia

  • photo of Mark RagoliaDiagnosed with stage 0-I esophageal cancer in 2006
  • Treated with surgery at UW Medical Center
  • Now supports other patients facing surgery

Mark Ragolia makes his home in wooded central Massachusetts but commutes to Seattle once or twice a month for business. So when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and told he would need surgery to treat it, it made sense for him to consider the expertise at UW Medical Center's Center for Esophageal & Gastric Surgery.

It was a bit of a role reversal: For years, UW Medical Center had been Mark’s client. His company, Case Mix Analysis, reviews medical records for hospitals in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii to ensure they are accurately coding the diagnoses they treat and the services they provide. Suddenly, he needed his client working for him instead.

Seeking the experts

“I already had a professional connection to UW Medical Center, and a little research revealed that UW had greater experience with the esophagectomy procedure I needed than the surgery centers I checked out in Massachusetts,” says Mark.

Through his professional contacts, Mark asked Seattle-area hospitals who had the most experience with esophagectomies. One name came up again and again: UW’s Carlos A. Pellegrini, MD. Dr. Pellegrini is chair of the Department of Surgery and a world-renowned surgeon in the area of esophageal diseases.

About a month after his cancer was diagnosed, Mark flew to Seattle to meet Dr. Pellegrini. Two weeks later he returned for surgery.

Early signs lead to quick treatment

Mark’s journey began just after Thanksgiving of 2006, when he visited his primary care doctor because he noticed blood in his stool. An endoscopic exam and biopsy later the same week revealed early stage esophageal cancer.

“I was very, very lucky to detect it early and very, very lucky to get it treated early because my doctors moved quickly. The lesson is: If you have a symptom, don’t fool around. Get it checked out. Bleeds are not something you can take lightly,” Mark says.

Because his cancer was limited to his esophagus, Mark didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation therapy, but he did need surgery to remove the cancer. After investigating surgical options closer to home, Mark called UW Medicine's Center for Esophageal & Gastric Surgery in late December and discussed his situation with a nurse. Within a week, he came for a consultation so the team could examine him and review his test results.

In mid-January Dr. Pellegrini performed his operation, taking out Mark's entire esophagus, bringing his stomach up, and using the upper stomach to create a new tube for food to pass through.

Mark spent just over a week in the hospital and then about six weeks recovering at home and returning to the surgery center for follow-up visits. Three to four weeks after surgery he was working again, starting with half days.

It was the surgeon’s technical expertise that first persuaded Mark to make his transcontinental trip for care. But by the time the surgery was complete, Dr. Pellegrini had won him over in other ways as well.

“Dr. Pellegrini impressed me so much. What a human being! He’s the greatest. He brings tears to my eyes when I think about him even now.

“He’s also a funny guy. When he walked me out of the hospital eight days after the surgery, he said ‘I’m going to follow you very closely for five years. If you fell in front of a subway train in the next five years, I would jump down and save you. But after that five years,’ he joked, ‘you’re on your own’,” Mark recalls.

Providing support to others

In fact, their connection has continued. It has been several years since his treatment, but Mark stays in contact with the Center for Esophageal & Gastric Surgery, helping other patients who need surgery similar to his. If a new patient wants to talk with someone who has experienced esophageal cancer surgery, the staff connects them with Mark.

“I call them (the patients), introduce myself, and see if they have questions or concerns they want to discuss. They know I’ve been through this, so they generally open right up and ask me whatever they’re wondering about it,” he explains. Mark is happy to be able to give them the information they want and to ease their minds by listening.

Other than when he’s playing this supportive role, Mark’s cancer is well in his past. More than five years out from treatment, he no longer needs follow-up visits, and he can focus fully on his work and other things he loves—traveling, playing tennis, cooking, being with friends, and walking the woods around his home.