April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness month. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5 year survival rate (all stages combined) is 19%. As the seventh most common cancer amongst men, it is estimated that over 16,000 deaths will occur from it in 2019. Men are 3-4 more times likely to develop esophageal cancer than women.
Ron Coury’s story offers an uplifting and inspiring survival story in time for Esophageal Cancer Awareness.
In November 2005, I went to Santa Barbara for my annual physical with Dr. James Murray, a practice I’d begun 20 years earlier. I was in great shape, weighing in at 185 pounds at 53 years of age. I regularly ran three to five miles around the lake adjacent to my house in Las Vegas, and enjoyed full workouts and lifting weights. Still, my dad had fought cancer for more than two decades, eventually losing his battle in 2002. Deep inside, I always felt cancer would find me.
As usual, my physical began with an hour-long meeting with Dr. Murray. During our conversation, I mentioned one small oddity.
“When I eat or drink, it seems like I have to clear my throat for the first hour or two. Does that mean anything?”
“Let’s find out.”
Among a battery of tests, he ordered a barium swallow. When I was done, I headed back to Dr. Murray’s office expecting to get another glowing report. However, this time there was a glitch.
The radiologist noted that during my swallow test, it appeared that the barium passed over a small bump at the base of my esophagus. Probably just a food fragment stuck to the wall, but the doctor ordered a procedure to play safe. Unfortunately, it revealed a tumor. And a malignant one at that.
It was hard to accept, because other than the need to clear my throat, I felt fine. Hell, I felt invincible! Still, I answered with a voice so calm it surprised me. “Okay, we’re going to war. What do we do now?”
Dr. Murray recommended a surgeon at USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, Dr. Tom Demeester, who specialized in esophageal cancer. He explained that even if I qualified for surgery, only eight percent of people diagnosed with esophageal cancer survive it.
When the doctor stepped out of his office, I looked out the window and said, “Well, Dad, I guess I’ll be seeing you soon.”
Luckily, the tumor was caught early in its development. And I was an excellent candidate for surgery, an ordeal that could take up to 12 hours.
The bad news? This type of tumor was highly invasive. The surgeon would have to remove a perimeter around the tumor, as well as nearby lymph nodes and upper stomach, take out the majority of my esophagus, then connect what was left between my throat and stomach.
He explained that life would change for me in major ways. I could never lie flat again, because without an esophagus, whatever was in my stomach could come up my windpipe and choke me. Also, I could only eat small meals from that point on.
I returned home and got my affairs in order, pre planning my funeral if the surgery didn’t go well. The last thing I wanted was to put my wife and kids through this. One of the hardest parts was calling my friends and telling them, “There’s a pretty good chance I won’t survive. So, I just want to say, I feel like I had a great run and I love you.”
Finally, the moment of truth arrived: December 5, 2005. My friend and workout partner, Mark Beckerle, had driven to the hospital the day before to see me. A spiritual type, Mark said he believed that people undergoing surgery see a bright white light. If they walk to it, they die on the table. “Buddy,” he said, “if you see a white light, run the other way!”
During my surgery, I did see just such a light. As if watching the doctors and nurses from above the operating table, I saw myself facing the light. Remembering Mark’s words, I turned and did, in fact, run. Was it real or a dream? Did it happen when I was bleeding out from my spleen, which got pierced during the operation? I’ll never know.
My next conscious thought came when I woke up in post-op. The first night was brutal and the pain was really rough, but I was alive!
Things turned bad quickly. I was in ICU for several days after developing the dreaded staph infection, MRSA. Next came blood clots in both of my legs. And a collapsed lung. Finally, they moved me into a regular hospital room where I remained for a month.
By the time I was cleared to return home in January, I still had a drain in my side, and a feeding tube remained in place.
Over the course of 2006, I gradually grew stronger and I was finally allowed to start eating small amounts of solid food. As I’d been warned, the pain was through the roof. But I was thankful to resume a reasonable facsimile of normal life.
Since the surgery, I undergo a PET scan each year, which is the best cancer-screening test available. Between scans, every ache or pain would make me think, “Uh-oh, is that a tumor?” Thankfully, year after year the reports have come back, “NO CANCER!”
After the fifth PET scan, Dr. Demeester declared me cancer-free. I’ll never forget him for the life-saving surgery he performed. Nor will I ever be able to adequately thank Dr. Murray for discovering the tumor so early.
I lost over 40 pounds during my month-long hospital stay, along with a great deal of muscle mass. A few years later, I’d gained back 15 pounds, but I was maxed out. These days, I can’t eat enough to exceed the calories I burn through ordinary activity.
Ultimately, tenacity and stamina carried me through my toughest battle. As I learned more about esophageal cancer, I found out that approximately 13,500 Americans contract it annually and 12,500 are dead within a year. I’m certain that my excellent physical condition enabled me to beat the odds, not to mention the best medical team on the planet, and the love and support of family and friends.
And remember, regular physicals and early detection really do save lives.
About Ron Coury
Ron Coury is the author of Tenacity: A Vegas Businessman Survives Brooklyn, the Marines, Corruption and Cancer to Achieve the American Dream: A True Story.