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Published on April 06, 2015

A bright future: How surgery helped Maureen Castillo overcome a deadly cancer

maureenNot a day goes by without Maureen Castillo giving thanks for the gift of being alive.

“I tell anyone who will listen how lucky I am,” she says. “I thank God daily for my life, for giving Dr. Ram the wisdom to find out what was wrong with me—for blessing his hands to help fix me.”

The doctor Maureen is so thankful for is Prashanth Ramachandra, MD—Dr. Ram to many of his patients. He is the Chief of Surgery at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital.

Together with Jose Maquilan, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Mercy Fitzgerald, Dr. Ramachandra performed a complex eight-hour surgery on Maureen this past July. It likely cured her of a disease most people don't survive: esophageal cancer, which affects the tube that carries food to your stomach.

Across the United States, only about 20 percent of people with this cancer are alive five years after their diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). But because of Dr. Ramachandra, Maureen—the mother of four children between 2 and 9 years old—has every chance of a long life.

I’m going to be able to take care of my kids, she says. I can watch them grow and become the people they were meant to be.

This is the story of why her future is so bright.

One early warning

To understand Maureen’s story, it helps to understand why cancer of the esophagus so often kills. It’s what doctors call a silent cancer. This means it rarely causes symptoms—until it’s already too late.

And indeed, Maureen didn’t experience many of the symptoms that would have concerned her. She never had trouble swallowing or heartburn that wouldn’t end. Her voice wasn't hoarse. And she wasn't losing weight without trying.

But she did notice one sign—pain below her rib cage. She’d had a similar pain twice before, in 2011 and 2013. But this time it was so severe that it sent her to a doctor’s office. She sought out Dr. Ramachandra because of his excellent reputation.

And that choice is why—against the odds—Maureen’s cancer was found early and successfully treated.

The right choice

Dr. Ramachandra advised an upper endoscopy—a procedure in which doctors pass a narrow tube with a tiny video camera at its tip down the throat and into the esophagus and stomach. During the examination, he did a biopsy to check for cancer.

Without his foresight to do an endoscopy, I never would have found out what was wrong with me in time to make such a difference, Maureen says. I didn’t have risk factors for this cancer. I don’t smoke. I’m not a heavy drinker. He could have just said, ‘Let’s wait and see if the pain comes back’.

But Maureen’s pain was a little different from what you normally see, Dr. Ramachandra recalls. I didn’t want to play a guessing game or delay treatment for a serious condition. The safest thing to do was testing.

‘This was the doctor!'

Maureen will never forget Dr. Ramachandra’s compassion when he told her the biopsy’s results. I started to cry, she says. And he stepped away from his desk and hugged me. Then he patiently explained my diagnosis and the surgery he proposed. I knew if anyone could help me, this was the doctor!

The surgery required removing part of Maureen’s esophagus, the nearby lymph nodes and the upper part of her stomach—and then reattaching the remainder of her stomach to her esophagus.

Because Maureen’s cancer was caught early, she was spared radiation and chemotherapy.

Throughout her recovery, Dr. Ramachandra made himself readily available, giving her his cell phone number and telling her to call whenever she had a concern—even at 2 a.m.

Several months after her surgery, she is fully healed. And she urges anyone who is facing cancer to search for a doctor they trust completely, as there may be difficult decisions to make. A doctor, she says, like Dr. Ramachandra.

Esophageal Cancer: By the Numbers

Estimated number of new esophageal cancer cases that will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year: 16,980

Of those: 13,570 are men; 3,410 are women
Esophageal cancer is 3 to 4 times more common among men than among women.

Source: American Cancer Society

What are the signs of esophageal cancer?

Check with your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Pain behind the breastbone
  • Hoarseness and cough
  • Indigestion and heartburn

Source: National Cancer Institute

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