Ron Pavuk feels he won the lottery of a lifetime, but the prize had nothing to do with money.
“It was the gift of living,” said the 64-year-old trucking company owner from Vinings who survived esophageal cancer.
Pavuk was honored last week at an annual event for cancer survivors who celebrated five or more years since beginning treatment at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America Global, Inc. hospital in Newnan. The facility is part of a privately owned network of for-profit hospitals and treatment centers that specializes in serving adult cancer patients throughout the United States. The hospitals provide integrative approaches to care that combines surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
Now cancer-free, Pavuk is passionate about encouraging others who have been diagnosed with the disease.
“I talk with people from all over the country who were scared and overwhelmed, just as I was at first,” he said. “I share my story, answer their questions and hopefully ease their fears.”
The Newnan hospital hosted 200 cancer survivors at a “Celebrate Life” event Wednesday with former patients from more than 30 states attending. Each survivor’s name was added to a newly created mural in the hospital’s large dining room. The honorees and their families were surrounded by deafening cheers and applause from scores of doctors, nurses and staff as they made their way along a “red carpet” installed for the occasion. Each survivor was also honored with a ceremonial tree planted in their name to symbolize courage and hope.
‘A shock on steroids’
“My story started seven years ago when my wife and I were celebrating our 30th anniversary out of the country. I was having problems swallowing, but I really thought it was the food,” Pavuk said.
“I felt better when we returned home, but my wife insisted I have it checked out. I remember waking up from the endoscope test and the doctor was standing over me. He said, ‘We found a mass. I have you scheduled for a CT scan to be sure, but I think it’s cancerous.’ Those words were a shock on steroids. It does something to you,” he said.
Emotionally shaken and knowing little about cancer, Pavuk immersed himself in research.
“I wanted the best doctor I could get,” he said.
An appointment with an experienced and well-respected specialist a few weeks later left him unsettled and scared.
“It was a small office, with just one piece of paper on the desk. I saw my name at the top of a list. I had a 1 o’clock appointment, with the next one at 1:20, and another at 1:40 and one at 2:00. A patient every 20 minutes. I looked at my wife. I said, ‘How’s he going to save my life in 20 minutes?’
“The doctor had great credentials and he was a nice guy, but within the first five minutes he told me if the cancer had spread to my liver that I had six months to live.” The specialist urged him to “get his affairs in order” and directed him have a chemotherapy port and a feeding tube placed.
“He wanted me to meet the radiologist and the surgeon, and he told me to come back in three weeks to get things started,” Pavuk said.
Fear sets in
Pavuk and his wife, Gail, sat outside a chemotherapy infusion room after the appointment. He was eager to start treatment but was deeply troubled.
“Something just didn’t feel right,” he said.
Though tests had already showed the tumor hadn’t spread, the doctor neglected to read the results.
“We walked out into the hospital parking lot and cried in each other’s arms. I thought I was going to die,” Pavuk said. “I heard the doctor say ‘feeding tube,’ and I thought ‘death.’ It was the reality of what’s going on that slapped me in the head.”
Pavuk continued his research and considered a six-month move to Texas for treatment at a highly respected cancer hospital in Houston.
“My wife saw her doctor the day before I was scheduled to have my port put in. She mentioned my plans for Houston, and her doctor suggested this place in Newnan,” he said. The following day, Pavuk’s urologist made the same recommendation.
Four days before Christmas 2013, Pavuk drove to a quiet spot on his 15-acre lot where his company’s trucks are parked. He called the Newnan hospital, praying to be accepted for treatment.
At the time, state laws regarding ‘destination cancer hospitals’ like the CTCA facility were legally limited in the number of in-state patients they could serve.
“If they’d filled their spaces for Georgia residents, I was out of luck,” he said.
A phone call on Christmas Eve brought good news. “I was in,” he said. “It was a good Christmas, and I met my new doctors right after New Year’s Day. That first meeting lasted three hours. I felt very relieved.”
The “Certificate of Need” restrictions for the hospital have since been lifted, he said.
Obesity: The new cigarette
In the weeks that followed, Pavuk drove to Newnan for 28 radiation treatments and seven chemotherapy sessions.
“I lost what was left of my hair and felt lousy, but I got through it,” he said. Once the tumor was reduced to a more manageable size, surgeons removed the cancerous mass and part of his esophagus. Pavuk was discharged 16 days later and back to work within another month.
Pavuk lost more than 100 pounds in the process, but counts the ordeal as a blessing.
“It was really the best thing to happen to me,” he said.
Long hours at his trucking business and a sedentary lifestyle over the years caused his weight to balloon to 250 pounds.
“I couldn’t even lean over to tie my shoes, and I was destined for a life of heart disease. I know my weight contributed to the diagnosis,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 630,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with cancer associated with being overweight or obese in 2014 — making up 40% of new cancer cases.
“Obesity really is the new cigarettes as far as cancer goes. There is a direct correlation,” notes Dr. Alan Yahanda, M.D., who was Pavuk’s surgeon and is chief of staff at the Newnan center.
“I have a whole different view of life now,” Pavuk said. “I joined the Cancer Fighters team at CTCA and I’ve talked with nearly 80 people around the country by phone in the past two years who were diagnosed with neck or throat cancer. I tell my story.”
“I’ve talked with the guy in Tennessee who just got diagnosed. I can hear his wife crying in the background. He’s scared and he has questions. I can’t tell him what’s going to happen in his case because I’m not God. But I tell him to get a second — or third — opinion. So many people get locked into their own doctor and don’t seek other opinions, or they get intimidated by their doctor. They all needed to talk with someone who’s been through the treatment. It helps when they hear someone’s experience firsthand, and that’s what I do now,” he said. “It’s how I can give back.”