The Texas weatherman thought he had acid reflux. It was esophageal cancer
When Rusty Garrett, 67, noticed that eating was becoming increasingly painful, he wondered if it was related to acid reflux. His wife persuaded him to see a doctor and he learned the reason for his agony.
“Esophageal cancer it was never at the forefront of my mind. I heard about throat cancer,” the now-retired meteorologist for KWTX 10 in Waco, Texas, told TODAY. “But esophageal cancer was new.”
He shares his story to encourage others.
“I felt prompted to try to be that little voice that says, ‘Fight and never give up,'” he said. “It’s a challenge for me. Some days I wake up and I’m just like, ‘God, I can’t go through another episode’ … but I know I have to. I’m just forced to try to give someone hope that they can get through it.”
Eating difficulties lead to the diagnosis
Over the course of about seven months, Garrett found that it hurt to eat.
“I’ve noticed that swallowing isn’t really a problem. It was when the food went down to where, I guess, the esophagus meets the stomach. And I didn’t know it at the time, but it stuck and I was just like oh my gosh, this is embarrassing,” Garrett recalled. “After that I kind of backed away from what I knew was probably going to be difficult.”
The pain “down the middle of the chest” was sometimes so intense that it almost made him “double up.”
“I lost the desire to eat anything and my wife was worried — especially when she felt pain after eating,” Garrett said. “She encouraged me to see my doctor.” His doctor ordered an endoscopy, a test in which doctors slide a small camera through the mouth into the upper part of the digestive tract. In late July, Garrett learned what was behind his weight loss and difficulty eating.
“I had a tumor. They did a biopsy through the endoscope and it turned out to be malignant,” he said. “So the journey has begun.”
Doctors told him it was stage 2 or 3 esophageal cancer.
“Thank God, my cancer did not metastasize,” he said. “It has not spread to other vital organs – kidneys, liver, lungs.”
He met with a surgeon, a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist, and they decided that Garrett would first undergo six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. In December, he will undergo an operation to remove the tumor and part of the esophagus and connect it to the stomach.
“I said, ‘Is this survivable? Will I have quality of life? And he said, ‘Sir, we’re looking for a cure,'” Garrett recalled. “I am very scared. I’m terrified. But I’m also very hopeful.”
Once a week, he undergoes radiation, which lasts about 10 minutes, and once a week, he undergoes a chemotherapy infusion lasting about two hours. He is also taking a pill for chemotherapy.
“I get really tired very quickly. I think I’m handling it as well as can be expected,” Garrett said. “The biggest and hardest part of this is trying to prevent further weight loss.”
Eating is still difficult, and treatment causes additional irritation and discomfort. Before he eats, Garrett has to use something called “magic mouthwash,” a prescribed liquid medication that includes lidocaine, Benadryl and Maalox.
“It’s like taking milk of magnesia, but it tastes even worse. It is given by syringe in the back of my throat and I assume it is used to coat the esophagus and the area inflamed by the tumor so that I can at least try to get the food in all the way,” he said. “The tumor is obviously irritated by all this radiation, chemotherapy… it really doesn’t like it when I put food in there.”
Garrett must maintain his weight in order to undergo surgery. If he loses too much weight, he will need a feeding tube, which he would like to avoid until after surgery. Garrett said his tumor is located in a place called the GE junction, “where the esophagus meets the stomach,” and that’s why it makes eating so painful. The food gets stuck and has a hard time passing into the stomach.
“It’s hard to get that (magic mouthwash) taste out of my mouth, but it literally helps me get the food down. It’s just a difficult process that I go through every time I want to eat,” he explained. “I’m trying to eat shakes and soups.”
The operation will take about seven hours as doctors remove the cancerous parts of the esophagus and reattach it to the stomach. This will reduce his stomach capacity and as he recovers he will need a feeding tube for at least a month.
“I probably can’t wait to hurry up and eat a hamburger, but I’ll have to do it very slowly,” he said. “I’ll be in the hospital after surgery for a few weeks.”
He shares his story to inspire others
Since struggling with food, Garrett begins to appreciate things he never thought about before.
“When you sit in front of a plate of food and eat it, you take it for granted,” he said. “I have to learn to appreciate the little things. I learned so much about fighting discomfort. I’m trying to take my mind elsewhere.”
For most of his adult life, Garrett was troubled by heart disease—his father had died of it, and he hoped to avoid the same fate. He would walk 10,000 steps a day to improve his heart health and still tries to walk around his ranch or on the treadmill when he feels up to it.
“I’ve really dedicated myself to trying to stay healthy for my heart – I never thought in a million years I’d be dealing with esophageal cancer,” he said.
He hopes others will feel less alone when they hear his story.
“It’s easy to get into a deep hole and just marinate on a sad situation. I know so many cancer patients who struggle with everyday life,” he said. “God has given me so many gifts, so many blessings that I just feel compelled (to give hope).”
This article was originally published on DANAS.com