Esophagectomy Recovery: Relearning To Eat & Sleep

Bart Frazzitta, Esophageal Cancer Survivor, on the challenges of Esophagectomy recoveryWhen I came home after surgery for esophageal cancer, a new era of my life began. Esophagectomy recovery meant learning how to eat and sleep again. Although my stomach was now smaller, I still needed the same number of calories to maintain my weight.

In addition, I needed to sleep at a 30-degree angle so gravity would not move the contents of my stomach into my throat at night. Because the sphincter valve that acts as a lid on my stomach was removed during esophagectomy surgery, there was concern that I might aspirate gastric content which could lead to pneumonia or even death.

In addition to these two major changes in my lifestyle, there still remained the fear that I might not have much time left to live. Should I be putting my house in order and making things easier for my wife to carry on after I was gone? I decided to ask her to start handling our personal finances. If I died, at least I knew she would be equipped to manage our finances after I was gone.

Depression Plays A Role

After surgery, I found that depression was causing me to feel too tired to exercise. I would excuse myself by reasoning, “If I am tired now, how much more tired will I be after I exercise?” As a result, I became a true couch potato.

Because I had no appetite, I wasn’t eating properly, and I became focused on watching the clock. My wife would ask me what I wanted to eat and she would go about making it.  But when she put it in front of me, I just couldn’t eat it.

Although my wife displayed a lot of patience with my lack of appetite, I continued to lose weight. When I went for my post-surgical check-up, my doctor saw that I was continuing to lose weight (from 250 pounds before the diagnosis to 170 pounds after the surgery.) He told me that if I lost another pound he was going to put a feeding tube in me.

Well, that was the turning point of my esophagectomy recovery! From that time I began to take ownership of my health and the life in front of me.

The Importance of Exercise For Esophagectomy Recovery

I began to exercise, which helped me heal quicker. It also activated my appetite and my mental outlook became more positive. I realized that I did not have any control over tomorrow, but God does, so there was no point to worry about something I had no power to control.  I decided that I would live each day to the fullest, and if God decided to call me home, I would be ready. My chosen life saying, Make where you are better because you are there, was still my focus, but now it had a new sense of urgency.

Esophagectomy Recovery: Relearning To Eat

I knew I needed to be proactive about my esophagectomy recovery. That meant relearning how to eat and get a good night’s sleep if I wanted to fight the potential for recurrence. I found that eating smaller meals was the key to getting enough nutrition to maintain my weight. In time, I would regain some of what I had lost during seven months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

Instead of the standard three meals a day, I needed to eat six times daily. My stomach was smaller now so my eating schedule now included two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners. What I would have eaten in the past was simply cut in half and I ate half at one seating and the other a few hours later. Instead of a full sandwich for lunch prior to the surgery, now I would have half of the sandwich at noon and the other half at 2:00 PM.

Sleep Becomes A New Experience

During the chemotherapy phase of my treatment I wore a chemo pump that required me to sleep on my back.  After surgery I continued to sleep in this position but I also needed to make sure that the back of my head and upper chest were above my stomach. I used a medical wedge pillow to ensure that my upper body was properly elevated in order to avoid the danger of aspiration during sleep.

The first two months of esophagectomy recovery were definitely a challenging experience. But relearning such basic functions as eating, sleeping and exercising proved to be the essential elements of my post-surgical recovery.

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Bart Frazzitta is an esophageal cancer survivor and the founder of the Esophageal Cancer Education Foundation (ECEF). Read more of his story here >

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