When John Gillis got esophageal cancer, he trusted Mayo Clinic

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John Gillis went to “the best place possible” when he got esophageal cancer and got a result that he never imagined.

The persistent stomach pain caught John Gillis by surprise. The active 53-year-old had rarely been sick a day in his life. He sought care from a doctor in his hometown of Fishers, Ind., who treated him for gastric reflux. But medications didn’t stop the pain.

John Gillis in his office at the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis

A week later, John was examined by a specialist in Indianapolis, who told John that he had esophageal cancer and recommended surgery to remove it.

“It wasn’t until I emailed my three brothers and my sister to tell them the news that it really started to soak in that I had cancer,” recalls John. “The idea of having my chest cracked open to do surgery to remove the cancer got me thinking about my options. I went on the Internet and Mayo Clinic was cited among the very top places in the country for treatment. I made an appointment and all the tests were scheduled for me right away.”

John, accompanied by his older brother, Rick, arrived in Rochester, Minn., for a week long battery of tests. “I remember meeting Dawn Francis, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist, for the first time,” says John. “Rick acted as my advocate, asking Dr. Francis questions and taking notes. Dr. Francis didn’t hold back. The prognosis was grim.”

The tumor measured about 3 inches (7 centimeters) and was located high in the esophagus, pressing on John’s trachea. “It was odd because I had no sensation of anything in my esophagus until I was given the diagnosis,” says John. “It was as though I suddenly became mentally aware of it.”

Dr. Francis recommended a treatment plan of six weeks of chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy to shrink the tumor, then six weeks of rest followed by surgery to remove the remainder of the tumor. Surgery would be performed by Dennis Wigle, M.D., Ph.D.,a Mayo Clinic thoracic surgeon.

The radiation and chemotherapy treatment was carried out by health care providers in Overland Park, Kan., where John stayed with another brother, Floyd. “I experienced fatigue, lost my appetite and weight during chemo, but I really didn’t get real sick,” says John.

Even during treatment, John, who works for the National Federation of State High School Associations, continued to oversee a major project, the National High School Spirit of Sport Award. “I worked as much as I could, but I thought I had a snowball’s chance of ever attending the summer awards ceremony or getting back to work,” he says.

With treatment concluding in Kansas, Dr. Wigle asked John to prepare for surgery by gaining weight. Following a regimen of regular weight lifting, eating and walking, he gained 24 pounds. “I felt in as good of shape as I had ever been in my life and was ready for surgery.”

Accompanied by his brother Rick, John was seated in the same office where he heard the original diagnosis when Dr. Francis delivered another bombshell. “She told us the tumor was gone … completely! When my brother asked how often this happens, she said, ‘Almost never.’ It was a possibility I had not allowed myself to consider. I cried.” Dr. Wigle reiterated that this occurs less than 5 percent of the time.

That evening, John joined friends and family members for a celebration dinner. “It was the best dinner of my life,” he says.

Back at work, John continues administering the Spirit of Sport Award, which has taken on greater significance since his experience with esophageal cancer. “This experience has helped me empathize with award recipients, who have overcome similar challenging circumstances or adversity to reach their goals. I truly believe administering this program is part of God’s plan for me.”

John attributes his outcome to his faith, great support from his siblings, co-workers and friends, and Mayo Clinic. “I went to the best place possible for my care,” says John, who returns to Mayo Clinic quarterly for follow-up. “Mayo has become a huge part of my life. Mayo employs highly professional, caring staff members who address your every need from physical to emotional to spiritual. I owe my life to the Mayo Clinic.”

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8 Responses to “When John Gillis got esophageal cancer, he trusted Mayo Clinic”

  1. Helen Scheid Says:

    John, It was so good to read your story and hear such good news. The Mayo Clinic saved my sister’s life many years ago with an experimental treatment that went on to be a protocol from then on. I sincerely believe that God guides Doctors and Surgeons. He had a mission in life with you in mind and I’m sure you are following it. I’m a former clinic employee of twenty years and now a volunteer there for seventeen years. I am greatful to God for having worked there and I want to continue to give back through my volunteering there. May God continue to bless you and guide you through your life.

    • John Gillis Says:

      Helen: Thanks so much for your very kind blog. My apologies for the slow reply – I’ve been busy at work and haven’t been able to visit the Mayo Clinic Web site lately.

      And, actually part of the reason for that delay is I was up at Mayo for a check-up a couple weeks ago. Not only did they give me a clean bill of health, but they also told me that they don’t need to see me again for an entire year. I’ve been there nine times in two years, which is roughly quarterly visits, so that is indeed great news from them.

      I am very happy to hear the great news about how the Mayo Clinic saved your sister’s life many years ago. I completely agree with you regarding how God guides doctors and surgeons.

      I am also very pleased to learn how you worked at Mayo for 20 years and have volunteered there for another 17. That is extremely important and noble work that you do – keep up the great work!

      Thanks again and best wishes always – John.

  2. Linda Says:

    John, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for you to share your experience. My husband was recently diagnosed with esohpageal cancer and we are doing the same regimen. We are currently in cycle 2 chemo, and chemo/radiation with cycle 3 & 4. We are also planning on surgery at Mayo Clinic. Thank you for your encouraging words, they are hard to come by with this disease. We rejoice with you in the power of the Lord and his healing power. Miracles do happen. You made my day brighter!

    • John Gillis Says:

      Linda: Thanks so much for your blog and your very kind comments. I know that the Mayo Clinic and the Good Lord will take excellent care of your husband. My best wishes to both of you – John.

  3. John Gillis Says:

    Sotera: Thanks so much for your blog with your good wishes and very kind comments. It’s great to hear from you.

    My former babysitter – wow! I hope I was a well-behaved child and didn’t give you too much trouble.

    I remember very clearly St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and how it was a big part of my life growing up. Thanks for your kind comments about my parents. They really were devout Christians and saw to it that we kids went to church every Sunday, regularly went to Sunday School, got confirmed, were acolytes, etc. Those are some of the greatest and fondest memories of my life.

    As you stated, I truly have been given a gift and I will take your advice and use it unselfishly and with an uplifted heart.

    Thanks again and best wishes to you and your loved ones – John.

  4. Marion Hersey Says:

    For those of you not familiar with the Gillis family, John’s father and Grandfather were the family Doctors in Mitchell South Dakota. The doctors would do everything in their power to help out the people of Mitchell. I believe in miracles come to those that help others and I believe that the angels above had a guiding hand from Doctor Gillis to assist in the healing of his son and grandson

    • John Gillis Says:

      Marion: Thanks so much for your blog and your very kind comments. They are very touching and I greatly appreciate them. I particularly enjoyed your last sentence – it actually brought tears to my eyes.

      I hope everything is going well for you, your family and loved ones.

      Thanks again – John.

  5. sotera Props Bogdos Says:

    Amazing news John!! I was your babysitter many many years ago and I want only the best for you and your siblings. The Episcopal church was very much a part of your growing up life ,your parents were very devout Christians . Faith in God shows itself in many unexplainable ways . Use this gift unselfishly and with an uplifted heart ! May you and your family stay well and happy. Very sincerely Sotera

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