Esophageal Cancer Survivor
- Diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer and esophageal cancer at age 67
- Treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy at EvergreenHealth
- Underwent surgery at UW Medical Center in January 2012 for a recurrence
Some might call it serendipity or even a familial coincidence. But in 2010 at age 67—the same age at which his mother died of a heart attack—Larry Pape found himself in a cardiologist’s office for an evaluation and soon thereafter in receipt of two stents to open a 99-percent blocked artery in his heart.
Grateful to have averted the fate of his mother at such a young age, Larry was surprised that he wasn’t feeling all that well a few days later. He was readmitted to the hospital, and doctors identified a bleeding ulcer in his esophagus. A subsequent biopsy revealed cancer, and Larry was diagnosed with stage IV mid-esophageal cancer, specifically adenocarcinoma, with lymph node involvement.
“This was a shock and bad news,” Larry said. “I knew nothing about this disease, although I had a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and my dad had died when I was 3 years old from something described to me as stomach cancer.”
While most doctors will avoid discussing statistics with patients, Larry preferred as many details as possible and learned that the five-year relative survival rate for his disease was 15 percent. “Which left little expectation for my future,” he said. He arranged several interviews with doctors and medical staff looking for advice and treatment options. “The staff at Evergreen Hospital gained my confidence, especially through the efforts of one particularly helpful female receptionist who had talked with me by phone and set up an appointment.”
Treatment Begins with Chemotherapy and Radiation
Beginning in April, Larry received chemotherapy and radiation therapy at Halvorson Cancer Center, a partnership between Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) and EvergreenHealth. SCCA provides medical oncology services there.
“This was going to be a heavy-duty chemo and customized radiation treatments, and I really wanted competence, and easy, local access; a pleasant local drive; a great staff; and the relaxed and helpful atmosphere that Evergreen offered,” Larry said.
Sitting in the “drip room,” Larry’s nickname for the infusion room, patients told their stories to one another. Many had low expectations for survival and discussed end-of-life scenarios and plans—which left Larry worrying that his treatment might not achieve much. “Perhaps I would be able to buy time enough to put my affairs in order, complete or closeout projects that I was involved in, help prepare my family for loss of my support and contributions. But not much else,” he said.
Part of Larry’s treatment included a pump-port, which allowed him to receive chemotherapy treatment away from the hospital. “The pump-port was recommended by my oncologist, and it took only a minor surgery to install. Using the pump was easy.” Larry found having the port much more comfortable than getting intravenous lines placed by nurses in the infusion rooms. “I did love those nurses though; they were so great and nice to me. I missed seeing them,” Larry said.
By late June, the side effects from the chemo and radiation were in full swing and included mouth sores and a metallic taste in his mouth. Knowing that it was important for him to eat to keep his weight and strength up, he found pleasure in eating salmon chowder from the clinic’s cafeteria, hot dogs at Costco, and protein bars.
Remission, Recurrence, and Surgery
When treatment was over, Larry went back to enjoying his cancer-free life once again, but he wasn’t entirely surprised when his cancer came back in his esophagus in October 2011. The good news was that there was no evidence that the disease had spread (metastasized). “My diagnosis was changed to localized cancer, which improved my odds for surviving my cancer. The five-year relative survival rate went up to 37 percent,” he said.
Surgery was now his only option for treatment. Based on his own research and the recommendation of his oncologist, Timothy Carlos, MD, Larry met with Brant K. Oelschlager, MD, an international leader in minimally invasive esophageal and gastric cancer surgeries at SCCA and University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC). Dr. Oelschlager removed Larry’s cancer in January 2012.
“On the day of my surgery, I thought my chest was going to be opened and that I would feel really uncomfortable during recovery. I was amazed upon awakening that I was really pretty comfortable and that the incisions were pretty small,” said Larry, who had a minimally invasive procedure. “Except for a nagging side ache, the pain management was fantastic. The thank-yous just kept coming out of me … for the care and services performed on my behalf, for Medicare and Regence insurance coverage, for the pain control, for the adjustments to my bed and equipment, for my visitors, for my wonderful room with a view, for the food, for help in the bathroom, for the many visits by the many doctors looking in on me, including Dr. Oelschlager, who is a very busy guy!” Larry said.
Larry spent a week at UWMC and then went home, where his appreciation flowed to “my wonderful ex-wife and life partner, Sharon, for her excellent care, food, and assistance; to my sons, my sister, and my friends for their freely given help and support.”
He had made a few preparations of his own to help make his recovery easier, including custom modifications for elevating his bed, automatic controls and overhead lighting, and a bedside work station for his computer and accessories.
Life After Cancer Treatment
Owner and operator of a small construction company and a security camera system design/consulting business, Larry was able to return to work in July 2012. His strength gradually improved, but even today there are continuing issues with stamina and nutrition.
Larry has made changes to his eating habits and eats better than he used to, he said: “I love eating fresh fruit.” He gets more physical activity and enjoys relaxing at the Woodinville Lavender Farm, a property and store in Woodinville, Washington, that welcomes visitors.
“I went through some unpleasant treatments and surgeries, but they also taught me lot. One of the things I learned is that if I locate and focus on things for which I can be grateful, things I can say ‘thank you’ for, then I feel a sense of progress, I experience joy, and I gain strength and enthusiasm, and that is what helped me heal and recover,” Larry said. “Rather than being preoccupied with struggles and discomforts, I believe God always gives me things for which I should be grateful ... even though these things are sometimes difficult to appreciate at the time they arrive.”
He regularly prays the 23rd Psalm and still lives well and pursues his interests. “My experiences have far exceeded my expectations in every outcome,” he said. “I want to help and comfort people with similar problems and those who suffer and those who struggle. That’s a lot to live for!”