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It started slowly and innocently enough. Just a little trouble swallowing, like having a lump in your throat. But then came the unexpected weight loss. And before she could even get in to see a gastroenterologist, Eleni Paras, a registered nurse, fearfully but fatefully predicted the worst: esophageal cancer.
“It was weird—I didn’t fit the profile at all,” says Eleni, who was only in her 40s at the time. “But I had the same symptoms as some of my patients with esophageal disease, so I knew I had to get checked out ASAP.”
While a biopsy quickly confirmed Eleni’s suspicion, it relayed good news as well. She had stage 0 esophageal cancer—the earliest and most curable stage of the often-fatal disease. To get the quality of sub- specialty care Eleni needed, her gastroenterologist recommended only three major medical centers between here, Baltimore and Cleveland. Eleni chose MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, the area’s premier site for esophageal care.
As a result of the decision, Eleni is finally facing a life free from esophageal cancer, thanks to MedStar Georgetown’s perseverance, pursuit of excellence, and willingness to try innovative new approaches, such as cryoablation therapy.
“Cryoablation therapy uses extreme cold to freeze and kill cancerous cells,” says Shervin Shafa, MD, a board- certified gastroenterologist with advanced fellowship training in esophageal disorders and their treatment, including cryoablation. “While it’s been used successfully in other disciplines for years, we’ve only recently started applying it to certain cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.”
So when Eleni’s cancer repeatedly returned after every state-of-the-art treatment available, Stanley Benjamin, MD, asked Dr. Shafa,
who joined the team in 2015, if perhaps cryoablation could root out the cause of her disease once and for all.
Esophageal cancer is rare, with only about 17,000 new cases predicted annually. However, it is often deadly, in part because its main symptoms— painful or difficult swallowing, unexplained weight loss, hoarseness, cough and indigestion—mostly appear only when the disease is advanced. While the cause of esophageal cancer is still unclear, men are four times more likely to develop the disease, which is usually diagnosed at 65 or older. Eleni’s particular type of cancer, squamous cell, is the most uncommon and hardest of all to treat.
“Squamous cell esophageal cancer tends to be stubborn, with frequent flare-ups,” says Dr. Shafa. “It’s especially problematic when cancer cells are buried within the tissues, out of reach of most other therapies. Since cryoablation can penetrate more deeply and target those pockets of resistance, it shows great promise for recurrent esophageal cancers and Barrett’s esophagus with abnormal or precancerous cells.”
In August 2016, Eleni started an aggressive round of cryoablation treatments with Dr. Shafa, ending in January with her fourth, and final, session. Since then, every one of her biopsies has been normal.
“Before cryotherapy, I was back at the hospital nearly every one to three months because of another relapse,” Eleni says. “Now, I’ve gone nine months cancer-free! I thank God for Dr. Shafa and the entire GI team at MedStar Georgetown for their incredible skills and techniques, kindness and caring. I’m alive today because of them and early detection.”