Kathy Wilmoth will never forget Halloween, 2007.
The 57-year-old Eastern Shore resident had spent a summer going to multiple doctor visits trying to pin down the cause of her loss of weight, chest discomfort and inability to eat. She finally saw a gastroenterologist who did an upper endoscopy and took biopsies of her esophagus.
On Halloween day, the doctor broke the news that she had stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus and recommended that she go to Baltimore immediately to be seen by Bruce Greenwald, M.D., a specialist at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) who has pioneered new therapies for the diagnosis and treatment of esophageal cancer.
"It was frightening news, and a total surprise, since I was not a drinker or a smoker. But I'm an optimist. Fortunately for me, I didn't really realize how bad it was," she says.
At the Greenebaum Cancer Center, Wilmoth met with a team of esophageal cancer experts, including surgical oncologist Whitney Burrows, M.D., medical oncologist Heather Mannuel, M.D., and radiation oncologist Mohan Suntha, M.D., in addition to Dr. Greenwald.
"They told me that my type of cancer was fairly rare," she says. "The fact the team of doctors worked so closely together made me feel very confident that they would be able to help me."
Wilmoth underwent surgery to determine the stage and extent of the cancer, which in fact had spread to her abdominal cavity. Once she recovered from the staging surgery, she began a week of inpatient chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy.
Since she lives a three-hour drive from Baltimore, Wilmoth felt fortunate to be able to stay at Hope Lodge during her treatment. Located just a few blocks from UMGCC, Hope Lodge provides a home-like setting for cancer patients and their caregivers, thanks to the American Cancer Society. "I lived there for two months while I had my daily radiation treatments. It was a very tough time. I couldn't didn't eat for two months and lost 40 pounds. I had to be hospitalized several times for dehydration," she says.
Once she completed an initial course of chemotherapy and radiation, she was sent home to rest, work on gaining back some of the weight she had lost during therapy and prepare for a major surgery to remove the cancer in her esophagus.
On March 30, 2008, Dr. Whitney Burrows performed a 13-hour surgery to remove two thirds of her esophagus and stomach and move what was left up between her lungs. He inserted a feeding tube during the surgery, so that she could get nutrition while her new esophagus and stomach healed. She spent another two weeks in the hospital, but notes, "I went home sooner than expected from such a major surgery. I really pushed myself."
By June, she had recovered enough to move on to the final stage of her treatment -- another week of inpatient chemotherapy -- a precaution to kill any remaining cancer cells in her body.
Despite dealing with several other health challenges over the past three years, Wilmoth is extremely grateful to be a cancer survivor living a full, happy life. "I remember Dr. Burrows telling me that I was the most advanced case of esophageal cancer he had ever seen," she says. "I absolutely credit this team with saving my life. If it wasn't for them, I don't think I would be here today."
For information about esophageal cancer or other treatment programs at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center, please call 1-800-888-8823.