Written by Senior Communications Editor Kim Savage
It started with a mild feeling of discomfort — almost as if something was caught in his throat. But the condition worsened over the next several months, and when Ray Miller started having trouble even sipping water, he knew something was wrong.
“I would eat and it would be like my food would get stuck right here,” he said, pointing to an area near the base of his throat. “When I wasn’t eating, I felt fine … but it got to the point, I couldn’t even swallow water without getting sick.
“Then I found out I had cancer.”
For reasons not completely understood, esophageal cancer is on the rise, and it’s three to four times more likely to strike men than women. The prognosis can be good if the disease is caught early, but early detection is rare because symptoms can be so general — heartburn and trouble swallowing are usually the only warning signs.
For most people, surgery is the best option to cure cancer of the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Often times, surgical treatment is prescribed in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation. Five-year survival rates vary depending on how well each patient responds to treatment and the experience and skill of the surgeon.
Fortunately, the Millers didn’t have to look far to find a surgeon. One of the most experienced in the world was relocating to Sarasota at the same time Ray was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor in preparation for surgery. In late 2014, Ray was one of the first patients to visit Kenneth Meredith, MD, when Meredith started his Gastrointestinal Oncology practice with Sarasota Memorial's First Physicians Group.
“It was amazing to hear all the other doctors ... everyone was anxiously awaiting Dr. Meredith’s arrival,” Ray's wife Jill later recounted. “They all said that if he had to get that kind of cancer, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“He saved Ray’s life.”
A Leader in GI Cancer Care
In November 2014, Sarasota Memorial recruited Dr. Meredith, a world leader in robotic surgery and gastrointestinal oncology, from the University of Wisconsin and previously Moffitt Cancer Center, to head SMH’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Oncology program and expand its robotic surgery capabilities.
Internationally recognized in the field of minimally invasive gastrointestinal cancer surgery, Dr. Meredith has performed more robotic esophagectomies than anyone else in the world. His experience and success rates immediately put the Millers' minds at ease.
“The prognosis for his kind of cancer wasn't that great in the past," Dr.Meredith said. "But with today’s advances and robotic tools like the da Vinci Xi that are optimized for complex cancers, the outcomes are much better. The visualization and reach is so much greater … we can target lymph nodes and hidden cancers that may have gone undetected in years past."
Robotic surgery can be performed through just a few keyhole-size incisions, rather than a large incision, which means less post-operative pain, less risk of infection and a faster recovery for the patient. Because patients can take deeper breaths following surgery, it also reduces the risk of pulmonary complications.
“I’d never been in the hospital before, really never even been sick, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Ray said of his 2015 robotic esophagectomy. “I never imagined I’d have such a wonderful team helping me through … helping me get back on my feet. I can’t thank them enough.”
Just days after surgery, Ray returned home to recuperate, and within a few weeks, he was fishing the shorelines of Sarasota Bay — his favorite pastime.
Now, nearly five years after his diagnosis, Ray is a cancer survivor, and he has big plans for his future as he approaches his 70th birthday: retiring and fishing as much as possible.
“We are so lucky,” Jill says. “Overall, Ray is remarkably well. We see Dr. Meredith as the man who saved Ray’s life.”
The American Cancer Society expects 13,750 new cases of esophageal cancer in men this year, versus 3,900 in women. While no one is sure exactly what causes it, age, gender and a history of acid reflux are risk factors. If you have symptoms of esophageal cancer —loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing, persistent heartburn, unexplained weight loss and chest pain not related to eating — get checked out by a doctor.
There are things people can do to prevent or reduce their chances of getting the disease, including stopping smoking, cutting back on alcohol, eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight.
For more information on Sarasota Memorial’s GI Oncology program or an appointment with Dr. Meredith, call (941) 917-3400.
Kim Savage is Sarasota Memorial's public information officer and senior communications editor, overseeing media relations and external communications for the health system since 1999.
* Updated from article that first appeared in SMH Today.