Woman Survives And Thrives Despite Esophogeal Cancer
- After nearly died during childbirth from complications, Andrea Miller is now 45 and a survivor of stage IV esophageal cancer.
- Smoking, heavy alcohol use, chronic acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD and chronic heartburn can increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
- Esophageal cancer is often diagnosed so late because its symptoms often mimic that of other diseases including weight loss, difficulty swallowing and heartburn.
“I live life to the fullest now,” Miller said.Read More
Her story began in 2003, when she was 25 and had gallstones, that led doctors to check her other organs. That’s when they discovered that she only had one kidney, a surprise to Miller and her mother.
Several months later, in the fall 2004, she had a CAT scan where doctors discovered she has a congenital birth defect where she’s missing a right kidney, a right ovary, and a right fallopian tube.
It also showed a mass near her stomach.
She went in for a biopsy and doctors found the mass was cancerous and covering her stomach, esophagus, liver, and lymph nodes.
Miller was just 27, and was told by doctors it was unlikely she’d make it to 30.
At the time, Miller was a loan processor for State Farm and had only been with the company for six months. Her husband at the time also worked there.
“It was a very very family-like atmosphere. People rallied around us,” she said. “They actually paid me throughout my entire treatments.”
She went through cancer treatments for two years, including chemotherapy from December 2004 to April 2005.
In October 2005, the tumors in her liver were gone.
Her oncologist then sent her to the surgeons.
In November of 2006, she had an esophagectomy with a gastric pull-through.
They removed the top third of her stomach and most of her esophagus, pulled her stomach up into her chest to reattach it to her esophagus, and then removed seven of her lymph nodes.
She was told she could be in the hospital for up to three months after the surgery, but was there for only 13 days.
The surgery did not remove all of the cancer outside her stomach. After recovering, she went through 5.5 weeks of daily radiation and more chemotherapy.
Then she was cancer-free.
“I was told I had a miraculous recovery,” Miller said.
At no point did she believe she wouldn’t make it to 30.
“I will tell anyone going through cancer, you have to have a positive attitude.”
Understanding Esophageal Cancer
Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant or cancerous cells form in the tissues of the esophagus. Smoking, heavy alcohol use, chronic acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD and chronic heartburn can increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Dr. Brendon Stiles talks about treatment options for patients with esophageal cancer
Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer are weight loss and painful or difficult swallowing. Other warning signs include pressure or burning in the chest, vomiting, frequent choking on food, unexplained weight loss, coughing or hoarseness, and pain behind the breastbone or in the throat, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
In 2007, Miller got pregnant with her son, Reid.
At 32 weeks pregnant, Miller was in the hospital for one week. Then she was put on bed rest, but she delivered Reid with no complications at 37 weeks on May 16, 2008, and went home two days later.
It was with her second son, Holt, in 2012 that she had major complications.
Based on Miller’s first pregnancy, she was very excited that she made it to 32 weeks without any issues, but at 33 weeks she didn’t feel well.
Her doctor told her to rest and take ibuprofen which was part of her regimen for preterm labor.
For a few days, she was able to manage her pain this way. Then she woke up in a tremendous amount of pain.
“I knew I wasn’t in labor, but I knew the pain that I was having was not right,” Miller said.
Then she, her husband, and Reid packed up and went to the hospital. Miller was unable to walk on her own, her body temperature was at 92.3 and she was septic, but the doctors weren’t sure why.
“I’m deteriorating,” Miller recalled. “It’s causing the baby to become distressed.”
Getting emotional support when diagnosed with esophageal cancer
Holt was born seven weeks premature via an emergency c-section and rushed off to the newborn intensive care unit. While Miller was still on the operating table, she went into respiratory arrest. Then a code blue was called meaning she was no longer responsive. She was intubated and placed on life support.
A CAT scan showed her diaphragm had ruptured and her small intestine herniated into her chest, causing her lung to collapse and putting pressure on her heart.
Once surgeons opened Miller up, they found that the intestine that had gone into her chest cavity was dead.
Surgeons repaired her diaphragm, re-inflated her lung, and removed 85% of her small intestine.
The average adult has 900 cm of small intestine. Miller now has 139 cm.
Following surgery, she was on life support for 12 hours.
At that point, doctors weren’t sure if Miller was going to be able to eat on her own ever again. They also had expected her to stay at the hospital for three months, but she was there for two weeks.
Holt was born on April 1, 2012.
“His birthday is no joke,” Miller said.
She said it’s possible that the surgery she had at the end of her cancer treatment played a part in the emergency she had while giving birth to Holt.
Following his birth, she spoke to the surgeon that did her esophagectomy with a gastric pull-through. That surgeon said, “It was done in a way that would have left room for the shifting of the organs.” So when she was pregnant with Reid, “things got shifted around, moved, pushed, all of that, and then with the second one it moved and pushed so much that it caused the space that was left around the diaphragm to rupture.”
Eight months after Holt was born, Miller and her husband separated. They are now divorced. “I have no ill feelings toward him,” she said. “We both experienced the same thing, but we experienced it in very different ways. So for him, it was,’ I’ve had to watch you almost die twice.’ And for me, it’s ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve overcome almost dying twice.’ The second one was just too much.”
Miller has lived 18 years past her diagnosis date and she has been cancer free for 15 years. “It’s been an incredible journey,” she said. Reid will be a freshman this fall in high school and is on the hockey team and also plays baseball. Holt will be in fifth grade and he plays soccer and hockey.
“We are so fortunate to have such excellent health care in St. Louis, “Miller said. I owe those hospitals and all those doctors so much.”