A Rough But Rewarding Ride: Patient Travels from Miles Away for Sky Ridge Cancer Care
Two years ago, Mike Dillard was preparing to die. The Florida retiree and his wife of 42 years had just returned to their Palm Coast home from a cross-country trip in their motorhome, when intestinal troubles re-emerged. Before the trip, his family doctor was treating him for parasites. After the trip, the diagnosis was advanced colorectal cancer with a rare twist: unrelated head and neck cancer.
“It was not good,” Mike, 66, says of his reaction to the dual cancer diagnosis. “Over the years, I’ve lost some friends to cancer, so you figure it’s kind of a death sentence. You start getting your affairs in order.” The double whammy, and the “gory description” by hometown doctors about what treatment lay ahead, sent both Mike and his wife, Theresa, into despair. Then the couple caught a glimpse of hope.
“Fortunately, our oldest daughter is in health care at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Denver,” says Theresa, 61. “She was able to contact her doctors and say, ‘Look, this is what’s going on. This is what they are saying.’” The response by the Sky Ridge Cancer Center team clinched the couple’s decision to pack up and undergo treatment more than a thousand miles from home.
Comprehensive Cancer Care
By then, it had become clear that the Dillard’s Florida doctors didn’t know how to treat the dual cancers, but the Sky Ridge team was confident and ready to get started right away, Theresa says.
“It was a no-brainer,” Theresa says of deciding to go to Sky Ridge, with its Commission on Cancer-approved Comprehensive Hospital Cancer Program. “They have the best of technology, the most-educated physicians, and state-of-the-art equipment.”
At Sky Ridge, Dr. Robert Jotte, oncologist, and Dr. Kenneth Blake, colorectal surgeon, began leading tumor board meetings with their multidisciplinary team, planning how to best treat the complicated case even before the Dillards arrived. Both tumors required combination treatment of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. “The challenge was how to balance and select those therapies,” Dr. Blake says, explaining that a body can handle only a certain amount of cancer treatment at one time.
The team started with head and neck surgery to better diagnose the Stage-4 cancer, and then decided to perform the colorectal surgery right away and treat the cancers simultaneously. Both cancers were advanced and needed heavy chemotherapy treatment post-surgery, followed by radiation therapy for the head and neck cancer. “I think the biggest challenge was for Dr. Jotte to pick a chemotherapy regimen that would optimize its effectiveness for two different types of tumors,” Dr. Blake says.
Mike had a feeding tube and ostomy (surgical opening in the body for the discharge of waste) almost from the “get-go,” Theresa says. “They knew the treatment was going to be a doozy.” Dr. Blake opted for robotic surgery for Mike’s colorectal surgery, which reduces scarring and recovery time and provides better visualization of the tumor and the surrounding tissue. The high-risk procedure lasted 11 hours. “Besides optimal resection of the tumor, one of the biggest challenges is trying to avoid a permanent ostomy for the patient,” says Dr. Blake, who succeeded in both aims.
A Difficult Ride
The doctors never pretended the treatment would be easy, and nothing about it was simple. Not only was the therapy intense, but the Dillards underwent the eight-month course away from home, Dr. Blake says. “Whenever I put together a treatment plan, I tell patients it’s like giving them a job,” he says. “And it’s hard. It’s hard on the patient.”
Mike lost a lot of energy and weight but never hope. “The chemo, radiation and surgeries just beat you down,” he says. “But they always made me feel comfortable,” he says of the entire team of Sky Ridge caregivers. From their “exceptional” ENT Dr. Clark Walker, their “wonderful” patient navigator, Christina Mullen, who guided them through the slew of tests, surgeries, treatments and appointments, to their “phenomenal” integrative medicine specialist, Dr. Edward Carriere, Jr., whose expert nutritional advice is still helping her husband today, Sky Ridge covered all the bases to ease their burden during the emotional time, Theresa says.
The Dillards couldn’t have done it without their daughters (Jackie Champeau and Brandi Petterson), who live near Sky Ridge and housed Grandma and Grandpa, providing love and support with their husbands and four children, Theresa says. “I’m grateful for everybody and everything. My beautiful family, the doctors, the nurses, everyone involved. We had an army of support, and we still do.”
Mike’s glad to be back home, traveling with his wife again, and enjoying a better ride on his favorite toy: his Harley Davidson. He’s logged more than 8,000 miles on his bike since going back to Florida, where he will continue to be monitored for years by doctors both there and in Colorado for recurrence.
He says the ordeal taught him two big lessons: One, “Don’t wait until tomorrow to do what you want,” and two, “Never give up.”