A lifesaving, newfound freedom
Thoracic surgery helps one man triumph over esophageal cancer
When Bob Iliff learned that his newly diagnosed condition, Barrett's esophagus, might one day lead to esophageal cancer, the Louisville, Ky., resident decided he didn't want to chance the watchful waiting recommended by his local gastroenterologist.
Instead, he sought a second opinion at Cleveland Clinic, where tests revealed he had Stage 1 esophageal cancer. In October 2007, at age 58, he underwent an esophagectomy by Thomas Rice, MD, head of Thoracic Surgery at Cleveland Clinic's Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute.
The procedure, which removed 80 percent of his esophagus, effectively eradicated the cancer and also freed him from the indigestion, chest pain and gall-stone type pain and other symptoms he reports having experienced prior to surgery.
"The total system in Cleveland Clinic is great," Mr. Iliff says. "Results to tests were quick, and response to questions and the attitude of everybody was so upbeat, I believe it had something to do with my good recovery.
"It sounds crazy, but I enjoy coming to the hospital when I come to Cleveland Clinic."
Mr. Iliff admits that recovery was tough. He was unable to exercise for a year. That was particularly difficult for him as he had become an avid bicyclist to help him get his weight under control (He once weighed more than 300 pounds).
"A week before my surgery I was riding my bike 20 miles a ride. Now I couldn't walk 50 feet," he recalls.
To adjust with his now-smaller stomach following his “gastric pull-up” surgery, he had to learn a totally new way of eating - every two to three hours until about 6 p.m., after which he must be careful not to indulge in big meals. He also no longer can lay flat to sleep and keeps his torso elevated with an adjustable bed.
During an esophagectomy, we remove the diseased portion of the esophagus and then form a ‘replacement’ esophagus out of the patient’s own stomach tissue – a procedure called a ‘gastric pull-up.’ Dr. Rice explains. “The remaining healthy esophagus is then attached to this replacement esophagus, which allows the patient to resume a normal diet upon recovery – although in smaller quantities due to the reduced stomach size.
And Mr. Iliff not only is back to biking - and down to about 180 pounds - but he also is challenging his body more than over. He rides 125 to 150 miles a week and took part in the Ride to Conquer Cancer race, involving 154 hilly miles in two days.
"It was the hardest thing I have ever accomplished, but I did it and came in the first day 118 out of 400, and (the second day) probably finished with the first 20 percent," he says.
The experience also taught him to appreciate his wife, Pearl, whom he calls his rock and guardian angel, and to appreciate life.
"I don't let little things get me mad or upset," he says. "I talk things out a lot more. Life can be short if you waste it, so I try and make the best of it."