‘Still cancer-free’ Cancer survivor paid heavy price for ignoring heartburn

Shopper News – News from Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center

Ron Houser remains cancer-free after major surgery at Fort Sanders Regional in 2012.

Ron Houser remains cancer-free after major surgery at Fort Sanders Regional in 2012.

Ron Houser was a busy man with places to go, things to do. Meetings, airports, meals on the run. Too busy for this; too busy for that.

“I was very career-minded, and my career took me all over the country – I was everywhere,” said Houser, whose job as a human
resources/labor relations executive for a large global health care
corporation kept him away from home five days a week for years. “I
loved my work. Loved it! I wanted to make that certain level within
the corporation, which I did by working hard. But I gave up things
to do that, and one of the things I gave up was me.”

More precisely, the Knoxville retiree gave up his esophagus and a portion of his stomach to esophageal cancer, largely because he didn’t follow his doctor’s orders to keep his heartburn under control.

“I can’t blame my cancer and my situation on anybody except Ron Houser because Ron Houser didn’t do what the doctors told him to do,” says the 72-year-old Houser. “I didn’t monitor my health the way that I should.”

Fortunately for Houser, however, his cancer was caught early, and following a complex surgery by Drs. Gregory Midis and Lacy Harville at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center to remove his esophagus  and a portion of his stomach, he remains cancer-free 2 1/2 years since his surgery – a major achievement since most patients at his stage live only two years. What’s more, he required no chemotherapy or radiation treatments afterward.

Gregory Midis, MD, FACS

Gregory Midis, MD, FACS

“When I finished with Dr. Midis at my last appointment, he reached out both hands in front of me, and as I took his hands he said, ‘Ron, I am glad to tell you that after all the tests you have gone through, you are still cancer-free.’ And he said, ‘I want you to know that that is HUGE!’ ”

“There is generally a high risk of recurrence,” said Dr. Midis. “So when you reach a milestone or anniversary, that’s an extremely exciting important moment.”

“I owe all that to the Good Lord, Dr. Midis, Dr. Harville and to the fine treatment that I got at Fort Sanders,” said Houser. “I can’t complain a bit about what they did. They were on top of it.”

Certainly, they took Houser’s heartburn seriously even if he had not. He’d had heartburn since his 20s, treating it off and on with over-the-counter antacids. By the 1980s, he was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD or simply “reflux”) and prescribed a daily dose of omeprazole to control the acid.

“I didn’t always have time to take my medicine,” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s just heartburn.’ But when it would get bad, I would take my medicine. When it got better, I’d stop taking it.”

By 2000, his symptoms worsened. An endoscopy revealed he not only had a hiatal hernia but also Barrett’s Esophagus, a precancerous condition caused by chronic, long-term reflux of stomach acid into the lower esophagus.

After the hernia repair, the doctors stressed the importance of regularly taking his reflux medicine and monitoring his Barrett’s. “If I didn’t, they said I would have cancer in 10 to 12 years,” Houser said. “But if I didn’t hurt or wasn’t having a problem, I wouldn’t take it.  But then when I hurt or would have reflux come back up. So, I was actually doing myself harm.”

A dozen years later, in August 2012, he sat in the office of the late Dr. David Lee, tears welling in his eyes as the gastroenterologist told Houser his Barrett’s had developed into esophageal cancer, the fastest-growing form of cancer in the United States today.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. An attempted endoscopic mucosal resection could not be completed because one of Houser’s three tumors was too deep. That left one option: Trans-Hiatal Esophagetomy (THE), a major surgery in which the patient’s esophagus is removed and replaced by a portion of their stomach which is used to process food. It’s such a complex operation that it requires the kind of surgical skill that comes only through repetition.

Houser was referred to Drs. Midis and Harville, who perform between 20 to 30 of those surgeries a year – enough to be designated a Center of Excellence due to its high volume and successful outcomes.

“Thank the Good Lord and thank these doctors’ skills,” said Houser. “They were able to go in and take all that out. People need to be aware of esophageal cancer, and they need to know some of the causes. Don’t be like me: ‘Well, I’ve got heartburn … I’ve got a little reflux. … It’ll be OK. I’ll take a Tums or I’ll take whatever and it’ll be OK,’ not realizing that the longer it lasts, the bigger and stronger it becomes, and you are really risking that chance of cancer developing within the esophagus and that part of the stomach.”

Dr. Greg Midis is a surgical oncologist with Premier Surgical Associates’ office at Fort Sanders Regional in Knoxville, TN.

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