A New Lease on Life

Monday, June 7, 2021

Gary Dudash will never forget 2019. He’d been having trouble swallowing, and it just seemed to be getting worse as time went on. Gary soon found himself at Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s (NGMC) Emergency Department (ED). “It got to the point where I was almost choking,” the 52-year-old grandfather remembers. “They admitted me and did an emergency endoscopy the next day. I owe my life to that doctor.” The ED physician, he said, gave him both an answer to his questions and a new lease on life.

“The doctor said the endoscopy showed a large mass on my esophagus – and that we needed to start treatment quickly,” Gary explains. “I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think, but I can tell you it changed my whole life perspective.”

Gary was officially diagnosed with Stage 3 esophageal cancer in mid-October. He found himself in Longstreet Clinic’s Cancer Center that next week to see Andrew Johnson, MD, an oncologist who specializes in hematology and medical oncology.

“Dr. Johnson was so good at explaining everything to me,” Gary says. “He didn’t waste time and quickly developed an aggressive treatment plan. I felt informed and confident moving forward.”

“Gary had a large mass that was extending down from the lower portion of his esophagus into his stomach,” Dr. Johnson explains. Further biopsies proved the mass was a Stage T3 adenocarcinoma – the most common type of esophageal cancer.

“When you have a patient like Gary that has an advanced esophageal tumor, the recommended course of treatment is to complete chemotherapy plus radiation, followed by surgery,” Dr. Johnson adds.

So, from mid-November through Christmas, Gary underwent chemotherapy at Longstreet Clinic under Dr. Johnson’s observation. He also received radiation therapy under the guidance of Jaymin Jhaveri, MD, a radiation oncologist with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group (NGPG).

“After my chemotherapy and radiation were done,” Gary explains, “the report showed the cancer was almost completely gone. All that was left was a dot about an eighth of an inch round. For a tumor that was originally 3.5” tall and a 1” wide, I was truly amazed.”

Following chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Dr. Jhaveri and Dr. Johnson assessed Gary’s case and determined surgery with a cardiothoracic oncology surgeon would be the next best step. While NGPG now has two skilled cardiothoracic oncology specialists, there were none on NGMC’s Medical Staff at the time of Gary’s treatment. So, Gary was referred to Seth Force, MD, a thoracic surgeon with Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University and surgical director of Winship’s Thoracic Oncology Program.

Thanks to NGMC’s Cancer Services network affiliation with Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, Gary’s referral was streamlined and his pathology reports sent straight to Dr. Force’s office, allowing for a fluid transition in patient care between NGMC, Longstreet Clinic and Winship Cancer Institute.

Together, Drs. Johnson, Jhaveri and Force worked to develop an aggressive multidisciplinary treatment plan that could be managed collaboratively between the three specialties. For Gary, the benefits of NGMC’s affiliation with Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University were two-fold.

“First, to be able to do my chemotherapy, radiation therapy and PET/CT scans here at NGMC – so close to home – was ideal,” Gary explains. “I can’t imagine having to drive to Atlanta for those treatments, especially when I wasn’t feeling my best.” “And to be connected directly with a surgeon who specializes in my type of cancer, knowing that he was working directly with my doctors here – it was such a relief.”

At Emory, Gary underwent an Ivor Lewis esophagectomy, a procedure in which a part of the esophagus is removed. Dr. Force and David Kooby, MD, a surgical oncologist with Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, worked together to perform the procedure. They made small incisions in the chest and abdomen to remove the cancerous portion of the esophagus along with the surrounding lymph nodes, and then removed a small margin of healthy tissue around the tumor just to be sure they got it all. Finally, the surgeons reconnected the remaining healthy section of Gary’s esophagus to his stomach, now located further up in his torso.

While Gary said the surgery and recovery was no walk in the park, he is grateful to have had such a good experience throughout the process.

In fact, subsequent imaging scans continue to show “no evidence of disease” according to Dr. Johnson, who continues to monitor Gary periodically.

“For me to come out the other side of it feeling like I do now, and to be as healthy as I am, it’s just incredible,” Gary adds. “Northeast Georgia Medical Center and Longstreet Clinic – in my opinion – are number one. They genuinely care about their patients. And to have the added expertise of Emory’s surgery team, I’m just so thankful. I’m back to work, feeling good and getting my endurance back, which is important so I can be there for my family – and especially my grandkids.”

“Everybody’s happy Papa G made it through – especially me,” he chuckles.

Gary Dudash

NGMC cares for almost 3,000 new cancer patients like Gary each year and offers care in four convenient locations: NGMC Gainesville, NGMC Braselton, NGMC Barrow and the Toccoa Cancer Center. As a network affiliate of Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, our patients can benefit from physician referrals, coordinated treatment plans, and access to more than 275 existing therapeutic clinical trials and research projects led by some of the top clinical investigators in the country.