Strong faith and a love that’s lasted 57 years help Huger man beat esophageal cancer

April 18, 2023
a man carries a woman in ankle deep water at the beach
Mike and Barbara Stelzer, married for 57 years, found top-notch treatment for Mike's esophageal cancer at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Photos provided

The retirement years – when life slows down, gets a little easier. You have fewer obligations and more time to spend at the beach. Life for Mike Stelzer of Huger was good. And then – he got a cancer diagnosis. But don’t think for a moment that it’s dampened his spirits.

“I didn't really feel anything,” Stelzer remembers with an air of confidence in his voice. “I knew I had a problem. I knew it was a tumor. I knew it was something that would be dealt with. And in an early morning prayer, I just surrendered it to the Lord.”

That kind of faith and his 57-year marriage to his best friend and companion, Barbara, have powered him through the last nine months and his esophageal cancer treatment at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.

Starting over

They found the perfect house in Huger, the last one for sale in their brand-new neighborhood, and knew it was meant for them – their ticket to being closer to family. So, the Stelzers packed up their home in Cleveland, Ohio, and headed south to start their retirement years near the beach.

Not long after settling in, Mike noticed something wasn’t quite right with his body.

“I was just doing fine. I didn't think I had a problem. And then I began to lose weight,” Stelzer remembers. “And then I began to have a little difficulty swallowing. Every time I would swallow, up would come a thick, ropey, clear substance. I knew anatomically you don't produce that much saliva because I was filling up an 8-ounce cup. My wife looked at it and said, ‘Wow! You've got to get to a doctor and have this looked at.’”

And that’s exactly what he did. Stelzer found an ear, nose and throat specialist, who was able to confirm that there was a major stricture in his esophagus. He referred Stelzer to Andrew Brock, M.D., an MUSC Health physician who specializes in gastroenterology and hepatolgy. Stelzer underwent an endoscopy, a procedure to examine the upper digestive tract, and the area was biopsied.

“And then the doctor came in in the middle of the night and said, ‘I have to tell you that you have cancer,’” recalled Stelzer. “And that's how my journey began.”

Having just had a positive experience at MUSC, the Stelzers were pleased to learn that Hollings is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in South Carolina and that it has one of the best esophageal cancer treatment programs in the state.

a family poses at church for Easter 
Mike and Barbara Stelzer with their family at Easter in April 2023.

Stelzer met with Ian Bostock, M.D., who takes care of patients with lung cancer, esophageal cancer, mesothelioma, mediastinal tumors and chest wall tumors. Stelzer hadn’t been able to keep food down for about two weeks. Bostock decided to use a jejunostomy tube, or J-tube, which is inserted through the abdomen into the midsection of the small intestine and delivers food and medicine to a person until they are healthy enough to eat by mouth again. But when Stelzer laid on the operating room table, he aspirated and his oxygen level dropped to zero.

“The doctors were quite concerned that I wouldn’t make it,” said Stelzer. “And all of a sudden, somewhere out of nowhere, my oxygen saturation recovered. So, it started me up again.”

Stelzer spent the next seven days in the intensive care unit until his lungs were clear, and he could go home to prepare for the next steps in his treatment.

A plan of action

Within a very short time, Stelzer’s team, including Bostock, Craig Lockhart, M.D., who would handle Stelzer’s chemotherapy, and radiation oncologist Graham Warren, M.D., Ph.D., was assembled.

“It was just like bang, bang, bang,” remembered Stelzer. “I was really amazed that they pulled all this together that quickly, and the doctors were all in sync that quickly. They explained it vividly; they were exacting and very thorough. I knew the path that we were following, and I knew what we had to do.”

That path started with five weeks of chemotherapy, followed by 28 days of radiation. Stelzer said he had very few side effects, besides hair loss, and he jokes that his eyebrows got darker. “I was just going through the process, and the real key here: I was at peace, and I wasn't upset, and I wasn't worried about anything.”

After taking some time off to rest and recuperate, Stelzer went back to see Bostock early this year to discuss surgery and was shocked to have it scheduled so quickly. Just days later, Stelzer underwent a minimally invasive Ivor Lewis esophagectomy – surgery to remove part of the esophagus. Small incisions are made in the chest and abdomen, and the cancerous part of the esophagus, the surrounding lymph nodes and a portion of the healthy tissue around the tumor are removed. The stomach is then reshaped into a cylinder and pulled up into the chest and reattached to the remaining section of the esophagus.

“The management of esophageal cancer is very complex and requires the collaboration of a strong multidisciplinary team,” said Bostock. “Technologic advances have allowed us to offer minimally invasive esophagectomies to our patients with excellent outcomes and improved quality of life. This surgical approach is a game changer, allowing for patients to recover faster and return to their normal lives more efficiently.”

The surgery was successful, and Stelzer is now cancer free. Due to the reshaping of his stomach, he sleeps at a 30-degree angle and can’t eat the way he used to, but he knows it’s a small price to pay for his health. And he has enjoyed getting used to a comfortable new adjustable bed. Other than that, he occasionally feels a little short of breath. “But if I take a deep breath and breathe out and if I walk my breathing is fine. You just don't talk as much as you used to,” he joked.

Over the next year, Stelzer will continue a cycle of immunotherapy, but beyond that and regular scans, his retired life is getting back to normal. He loves to spend time with Barbara and their daughter, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Their third great-grandchild is on the way.

“We're a tight family. We're concerned about everybody. We take care of everybody. And it's nice to see them come to the house and just visit and talk and play. I can't get up and do what I used to do,” Stelzer said and added with a twinkle in his eye, “but I can still make Christmas cookies, and I can still do artwork with them. So, we have a lot of fun together.”

A call to serve

The Stelzers have found that this whole ordeal is a way to reach and serve other people. They are both elders at their church, Community of Christ Church in North Charleston, and Mike’s hobby is people. He recalled the several times they sat together during his chemo watching other patients in similar situations and seeing the fear in their eyes.

“You can tell people are worried. You can tell people are distressed,” said Stelzer. “And a dozen or more times Barbara would get up and go pray for somebody. And you just saw the peace come upon them. That was a beautiful, beautiful opportunity.”

This kind of faith has also helped Barbara through Mike’s diagnosis. She recalled learning the news and immediately sending a text to family members to say that they were handing it over to God, and that was it. No questions asked.

“The hard part is to know that he's going through it,” said Barbara. “But we've got such a close relationship, and we have relationship with the Lord. So, we just hung out together, and we’re going to get through this.”

“It’s kind of like vacation,” interrupted Mike, sending Barbara into laughter. “You don't have to do anything. Somebody brings you food all the time. You get to stay in a nice hotel – the house.”

Mike, all kidding aside, is very vocal with his appreciation of all the ways Barbara has cared for him.

“You know, 24/7 is a hard, hard road when you've got to be the caregiver, the companion, and do everything that I couldn't do. And she's done an excellent job. You just can't underestimate the power of a good caregiver and somebody that's there and loves you at the same time.”