Auto Mechanic Goes In For Expert Repair

Esophageal, thoracic cancers among our advanced oncologic surgeries.


story regarding cancer_MG_0118An auto mechanic since age 16, Dale Cavanaugh knows cars.

He knows how they’re built, how they run and how to fix them if something is wrong. He’s an expert.

And when he started having trouble swallowing last spring, he turned to experts at The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC).

“I couldn’t eat,” says Cavanaugh, now 70. “The only thing I could get down was liquid.”

With a history of Barrett’s esophagus, a condition affecting the esophageal lining, Cavanaugh saw his primary care physician, Dr. Joseph Babiarz, a Hospital of Central Connecticut medical staff member. Suspecting a mass, Babiarz sent Cavanaugh to HOCC surgical oncologist Dr. James Flaherty, FACS, who performed a biopsy at HOCC the very next day. Diagnosis: adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.

This is the most common type of cancer affecting the esophagus, a muscular, valve-like structure that brings solids and liquids to the stomach; it accounts for about 60 percent of esophageal cancers. Cavanaugh’s primary risk factor was Barrett’s esophagus, triggered by acid reflux. Other risk factors for the cancer include increased age, being male, being overweight, tobacco, alcohol, and dietary aspects.

“I didn’t get too upset,” with the diagnosis, says Cavanaugh. “I just accepted it.”

He then saw oncologist Dr. Peter Byeff, medical director of the cancer program at HOCC, who developed Cavanaugh’s five-week treatment plan for concurrent radiation
therapy and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery. Byeff talked with him about the cancer, possible outcomes, “the good and the bad,” Cavanaugh says. “Everything he told me was the honest truth and most of the bad didn’t happen. I was very fortunate.”

Toward treatment plan coordination, cancer cases, including Cavanaugh’s, are often presented as part of weekly HOCC tumor conference meetings, which afford a multidisciplinary perspective via input from oncologists, surgeons, registered nurses, nurse navigators, genetic counselor, radiation oncologists. Systemwide, the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute holds tumor conferences for genitourinary, gynecologic and thoracic cancers. In addition, HOCC, like other cancer programs within the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute, provides nurse navigators who often help coordinate patient care while offering patient education, clinical expertise and compassion. HOCC provides nurse navigation services for breast and thoracic (chest cavity) cancers.

Cavanaugh had 29 days of radiation therapy at HOCC’s American Savings Foundation Radiation Oncology Treatment Center. During this time, he also had two cycles of chemotherapy, having received an intravenous line at HOCC to initiate treatments at Byeff’s office that, through a portable pump worn on a strap around his shoulder, enabled him to have ongoing chemotherapy at home, with each cycle 96 hours (four days). Treatments were complete by early September and Flaherty performed minimally invasive surgery on Cavanaugh Oct. 30, 2013.

“By the time I had the operation I had been eating normally,” Cavanaugh says. “They pinpointed it perfect.”

Surgeries for esophageal and thoracic cancers are among the highly specialized and technologically advanced oncologic surgeries offered at HOCC. Flaherty is board-certified in general surgery and fellowship trained in both esophageal and cancer surgery.

Byeff says esophageal cancer is typically found before it has spread to the liver or lungs or elsewhere because a primary symptom is difficulty swallowing.

“Everything worked the way they hoped it would,” says Cavanaugh, who enjoys going to “cruise nights” with his 1978 Chevy El Camino that he refinished. “They gave me excellent care. I couldn’t ask for better care, really.”

His advice for other patients: “You got to go there with an open mind. The doctors know what they’re doing.”