Over-the-road truck driver Ken White had heartburn “for a million years” and it never worried him.
His prescription, a pill to decrease the acid produced in the stomach, kept his acid reflux under control.
Then, in early 2016, the Hersey, Michigan, resident started getting hiccups every time he ate. He made an appointment with his family doctor, who ordered tests that soon revealed a small hiatal hernia.
The doctor also ordered an endoscopy for a closer look at his gastrointestinal tract.
White’s wife, Lois—his over-the-road driving partner for years—quickly began keeping detailed notes in a little book, logging all his appointments, tests and treatments.
That book soon included his diagnosis: esophageal cancer.
‘In your hands’
Cancer of the esophagus is tricky to diagnose because most patients don’t show symptoms until the disease has advanced.
White and his doctors set out immediately in a vigorous fight against the disease. He underwent 23 radiation treatments and five rounds of chemotherapy in just one month at the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center in Reed City, near the Whites’ home.
“After that I had the worst heartburn,” White said. “It was beyond bearable.”
The treatments shrank White’s tumor from the size of his index finger to a small nub. He talked with his wife and two sons before agreeing to move forward with major surgery to remove the last bit of cancer.
Spectrum Health surgical oncologist M. Mura Assifi, MD, assisted by Andrea Wolf, MD, performed an esophagectomy, removing most of his esophagus before then pulling his stomach up from his abdomen to his neck.
“When I was wheeled into the operating room, I took Dr. Assifi’s hand and told her, ‘I’m putting my life in your hands,’” White said.
After surgery he spent two weeks in the hospital. He started off on a feeding tube and then slowly regained his ability to eat and drink again.
“It’s a long, hard road to recovery,” White said. “There were days I wanted to give up.”
Normally an affable guy, he even had moments when, as he describes it, he “wasn’t a very nice person.”
At his lowest, he ordered the medical staff to leave his hospital room. He had refused treatment that entire day, although he later apologized by delivering a bouquet of flowers to the doctors’ office.
These days, there remains a special bond between White and the surgeons who helped save his life.
“They made us feel like part of the family,” Dr. Wolf said.
The relationship has only strengthened since. White still sees Dr. Wolf occasionally for dilations to keep his esophagus open so he can swallow. It’s an outpatient procedure performed at the Spectrum Health Gastroenterology Center on Lake Drive in Grand Rapids.
“It’s easy-peasy, cup of soup,” Lois said.
Five months after surgery, White went back to work. He drives a 53-foot rig from Reed City to Dallas, with one stop-off in Wisconsin.
That’s a 2,863-mile trek each week. Not bad for a 70-year-old cancer survivor.
His latest PET scans show he’s cancer-free.
And while he’s all smiles as he looks forward to his healthy future, he also isn’t one to sugarcoat the road he traveled.
“I was a hurting puppy for awhile,” White said. “It’s major surgery and, really, the recovery is worse than the surgery.
“You gotta go in there with a positive mind,” he said. “Keep a positive attitude and just fight it all the way.”