As John Gaebel relaxes in a subtle flower-patterned chair at his home in Mission Viejo, CA, he thinks about how lucky he is. Gaebel, who towers above most people at 6’4”, has genuine joy in his eyes as he talks about his life — his career, his upcoming travel plans and his growing family: his wife, two sons and three grandchildren. He considers himself a “type A” personality, preferring to be in control of as many aspects of his life as possible.

To look at him, you might never know that just two years ago, Gaebel was dealt an blow that would send his world spinning out of his control. At age 64, the former dentist and business owner was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage III esophageal cancer.

The prognosis for such a late-stage disease isn’t good; according to Gaebel’s Keck Medicine of USC surgeon, only about 35 percent of those in Gaebel’s shoes survive. But this is where Gaebel has been truly lucky. Between being in excellent health at the time of his diagnosis, having the support of a loving family and receiving outstanding treatment from his Digestive Health team at Keck Medicine of USC, he has come through his illness to a near-full recovery — and with a new lease on life.

Unwelcome News
Gaebel’s story began during a routine visit to his primary care physician in March 2012. “I had what I thought was some indigestion,” he said. After learning Gaebel’s symptoms, his doctor suggested they take a look at his stomach through a scope, just in case. Confident that nothing was wrong, Gaebel agreed to the procedure. But a few days later, he received a call that changed his life.

“I can remember the day quite clearly,” Gaebel said. “He told me, ‘John, you have cancer.’” At first, says Gaebel, the diagnosis was difficult to believe, as were the ramifications it would have on his life. He and his wife had plans to travel to Machu Pichu and the Galapagos Islands that year, and they had just welcomed two new grandchildren into the family. It was, he said, the first time in his life that he felt out of control. “My life was perfect before the cancer,” he said. “The thing about cancer is
that it takes away your control — your whole life becomes remembering which doctor to see on which day. I kept thinking, ‘Why me?’ It left me completely numb.”

Taking Action
Gaebel quickly realized he had little time to waste on wishing things were different. He had to decide on a course of treatment, and fast. After reading some literature and consulting with his primary care physician, Gaebel made the decision to go with USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Keck Medicine of USC, for radiation and chemotherapy, and then surgery, called an en block esophagectomy and gastric pull-up.

“My doctor told me that my USC surgeon had pioneered this type of surgery,” Gaebel recalled, “and that if he had to have it, Keck Medicine of USC is where he would go — there was no question about it. It let me feel at ease letting USC take charge: I knew I was going to the right place.”

Although Gaebel was anxious to have the surgery, the doctors at the USC Digestive Health Center, who specialize in multidisciplinary care for gastrointestinal/esophageal cancer, recommended radiation and chemotherapy first, to help shrink tumors in preparation for surgery and to see how Gaebel’s system would respond. After finishing a course of radiation and chemotherapy at USC Norris, Gaebel went to Keck Hospital of USC for his procedure in June 2012.

The en block esophagectomy and gastric pull-up is a minimally invasive operation that involves the removal of the lower part of the esophagus, followed by reconnecting the upper part of the esophagus to the stomach. In Gaebel’s case, it took approximately eight hours, and he had no major complications. Following the surgery, Gaebel was given good news: There was no indication that the cancer had spread. It was time to focus on recovery.

A New Lease on Life
Gaebel spent eight days in the hospital — three days in the intensive care unit and five days getting back to walking and talking, thanks to occupational therapy. His experience during that time wasn’t just one of surgical excellence, he said, but also of kind staff members, thoughtful care and a welcoming group of professionals.

“No one ever seemed to be having a bad day,” he said. “Everyone I met cared about me. If I expressed that I was having a problem, someone would be right there to fix it.”

In addition, Gaebel added, the Keck Medicine of USC staff was devoted to living up to their own standards of excellence. The experience so impressed him that he and his wife made a monetary gift to USC to purchase much-needed equipment. “They didn’t just say, ‘We’re world class,’” he says. “They demonstrated that they are world class.”

Since coming home, Gaebel has been slowly getting back to his old self. He’s had to relearn how to eat and walk, and meets regularly with his Keck medical team. But his recovery has gone well.

Now, two years after his initial diagnosis, Gaebel is living life to the fullest. He fishes as often as he can, and he and his wife have plans to travel to Europe and the eastern United States.

“I treat every day as a gift,” he said. “I get up every morning, look at the sunrise and get a smile on my face. We live in a beautiful world.”

By Jessica Ogilvie