column: Dennis Serras on esophageal cancer battle: 'I don't know how you could go through what I went through without family'
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Thanksgiving is a day for Americans to dedicate themselves to expressing the gratitude that often goes unsaid during the rest of the year.
But some people among us, those who’ve survived immense challenges and threats to their own mortality, are feeling that thankfulness on a daily basis.
Dennis Serras, cancer-free for a year, is among them.
“Your life really changes after cancer,” Serras told me last week in what seemed like a dramatic understatement.
He shared those words as we spoke in a booth in his Real Seafood Co. Restaurant, a mainstay on Ann Arbor’s South Main Street that he opened 37 years ago. We were there with Ellie Serras, who sits next to her husband, holding his hand, sharing his story and - in the moments when Dennis pauses during a wave of emotion - telling it, too.
Dennis speaks of the changes during a time when he’s regaining strength, celebrating a cancer-free diagnosis and returning to work as a partner in Mainstreet Ventures, which operates 15 restaurants across Michigan in several states.
But they also provide a hint of what came next for Dennis after his diagnosis, protracted treatment and hard-fought battle to beat the disease.
Today, Dennis’s life is filled with gratitude.
He is grateful to doctors. To his wife and daughters. To the powers that gave him strength during the journey that infuriated and humbled him.
Dennis Serras is grateful to be alive.
The diagnosis of esophageal cancer comes with a bleak outlook: it’s usually not curable.
Dennis said he first knew something was wrong when he felt a discomfort in his chest in October 2010. He mentioned it to his doctor during a casual conversation, and was advised to take Prilosec for acid reflux.
“He said if it doesn’t go away, come see me,” Dennis said.
He didn’t take the medication. A short time later, he was bird hunting, and an oncologist was in the group. He mentioned his symptoms, and again Prilosec was suggested.
“Naturally, I didn’t listen to that,” he said, his voice conveying the irony.
He meant to see a doctor while he was in Florida - he didn’t do that, either.
By the time he returned to Michigan, the discomfort was a constant irritation, reminding him of an earlier hernia affecting his stomach.
In May 2011, he went to a doctor: “He didn’t even have the pathology done. He told me I had esophageal cancer.”
The news hit them hard, yet it was too early for them to know details of the disease or what a treatment plan would look like. He was one of 57,010 people in Michigan to get a cancer diagnosis that year. Across the US, 16,980 people learned they had esophageal cancer in 2011 - and 14,710 people died that year from the disease.
Dennis went home from that visit, where he was determined not to tell their two adult daughters, Niki and Alisha. But Ellie did, anyway.
“I thought something like this was a family thing,” she said. “ And I felt like we needed support from them.”
The family sought any information they could find, quickly learning about the 20 percent survival rate for forms that had spread.
“What we read online was pretty devastating,” Ellie said.
Dennis soon learned that a global specialist in esophageal cancer treatment is based at the University of Michigan: Dr. Mark Orringer, who pioneered a process called transhiatal esophagectomies (THE).
The technique sounds dramatic, but as Ellie describes it, THE is much less invasive than other treatments.
Then Dennis laughs: “It’s pretty invasive. He puts his hands between my lung and heart.”
That happens as the doctor - in Dennis’ case, Dr. Orringer - removes most of the esophagus, pulling the stomach up to attach it to the remaining couple of inches.
The surgery is complex. Yet, as Dennis tells it, he speaks with pride at how the six-hour procedure was done in four with no complications.
However, the surgery, done in September 2011, was just one of three in a span of eight months that Serras endured in his fight. He accumulated three surgeries, one an emergency, accompanied by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
At one point before the THE operation, he says, “my body was so compromised that I had a perforation of my colon.” And four hours after an ER visit in July 2011, he was in surgery, losing 10 inches of colon and coming out of it with a colostomy bag that he used until the reversal of that surgery in April 2012.
Yet he was strong heading into the THE surgery. He was ready.
Doctors were convinced they’d removed the disease. Pathologists soon told them otherwise.
“After surgery, we thought: ‘This is great. It’s confined (to the margins of what was removed,’ ” Ellie said.
The family learned their joy was misplaced. Microscopic cells existed outside of those margins and there was a possibility the disease had spread.
“That was devastating,” Ellie said.
Dennis was two surgeries, weeks of chemotherapy and dozens of doses of radiation into his fight at that point. He’d lost feeling in his toes. His surgical wound wouldn’t heal. He lost all trust in his body.
The news that the cancer hadn’t been eradicated sent Dennis into a tailspin. He was headed for more chemo, more radiation.
“His body was ravaged at this point,” Ellie said.
The cancer was still there. The chemicals poured into his body, sickening Dennis as they offered a chance to heal.
And then depression kicked in.
He kept working, he stayed active, he relied on the strength and support around him.
But his body wouldn’t heal.
“Those words, ‘we found live cells,’ that was the last straw,” Ellie said.
He struggled with getting out of bed. A recovering alcoholic, he realized he’d become hooked on medication. He was too sick to eat, always in pain.
Dr. John Greden at U-M helped to connect him to psychiatrists who treated cancer patients, offering him yet another lifeline in a period of months where that was all he sought on so many fronts.
The cancer took everything but his mental strength. The depression ate away at that.
He kept telling his daughter Alisha, “I live in a cancer world.”
It was immobilizing, Ellie says. And the lesson, they agree, is that the psychological care has to become as important as the physical care. A cancer patient needs to be told that they can ask for help.
“Your body is revolting,” Ellie says. “There’s a loss of control. It’s like a machine: You get a diagnosis and it’s out of control.
“ It’s like a tidal wave, you’re just swept away with it,” she continues.
The end result: “Emotionally and mentally, you’ve just been taken on a trip to another planet called cancer care.”
The therapy helped him inch his way out of the depression, but it was a real-life trip to Greece - a monthlong visit to a familiar place that included his daughters and brother, with Ellie remaining at home - that pulled him out of it.
Ellie says it was regaining his independence. Dennis says it about realizing he could trust his body again.
“It was a real time of healing,” Ellie says. “In many ways.”
The weight of mornings, when Dennis fought to get out of bed, ended after his first night in Greece. He returned home, then underwent his third and final surgery in April, when doctors performed his colostomy reversal.
And since then, he’s gained strength while going to work, golfing and participating in typical daily activities.
“It’s gotten better and it continues to get better,” he said.
Dennis has learned to talk about his experience. He’s discovering bonds with others seeking treatment or other survivors, and he’s learned he’s also influencing people around him to be tested.
He wishes more people could talk about it, that there wasn’t a stigma, particularly among men. He also wishes the depression and addiction risks could better be communicated among those diagnosed with the disease.
And he knows that the disease and all of the experiences with it left him more capable than ever of communicating what he was going through. Of talking with family, friends, colleagues. Of acknowledging his emotions. And of learning how to open up with strangers who could give support - and sometimes needed it in return.
“I get a lot of satisfaction,” he says, of supporting others with the disease. He speaks of his own cancer network, which included survivor John Kluck, and now expanded to four people with newer diagnoses who need Dennis and the support he can give them.
His personality, said Ellie, “did a total flip.”
From the person who hid emotions, Dennis became the person who couldn’t watch the drama of “Grey’s Anatomy” without tearing up.
“I can count the number of times I’ve seen my husband cry since we’ve been married 33 years,” Ellie said. “The last two years, it’s been an emotional tsunami.”
The reason that he’s driven to give himself to others with cancer grew over time. His openness included a letter sent to the 1,500 Mainstreet Ventures employees, so they’d know what was going on.
At one point in our conversation, I told Dennis: “I can’t even imagine.”
And that, he said, is what makes him seek out ways to support others.
The experience is “so unbelievable, the only people you can really talk with are people who’ve gone through it.”
It’s the connections of friends - old and new - and family that kept Dennis and Ellie going. And it’s the connections that they cherish as they look back over the past year and a half.
“When you’re going through such a stressful time of your life, something that causes so much anxiety, friends and family play such a role,” Ellie said.
And a spouse.
“I couldn’t have done it without her,” Dennis says.
Dennis spent most of his life “fiercely, fiercely independent,” his wife says.
“He’s been the rock in our family, the one everyone looks to for the strength,” Ellie said. “The solid part of the structure of our family. That was taken away from him.”
Over the past year, he learned how to let others take care of him.
He and Ellie both learned to identify when they were acting out of fear, and when they could reach inside of themselves for still more strength.
They share the telling of their story, holding hands, knowing what each other will say. When Dennis gets emotional, Ellie picks up the tale. As she speaks, he regains his own power to talk about the disease that threatened his life, and also changed it.
Dennis and Ellie finish telling me this chapter of their story as former Mainstreet Ventures partner Dieter Boehm arrives for lunch with more friends from the Ann Arbor business community. We’re still sitting in the familiar Real Seafood dining room, where I’ve talked casually with both over the years, including months ago right after a surgery.
Those threads of their past and what’s important to them are part of their daily lives.
So, too, are the memories how of daughters Alisha and Niki joined Ellie at the hospital daily as Dennis underwent his surgeries. The girls supported their parents as Dennis and Ellie showed them their own strength.
The family, already tight-knit, became closer.
And that’s yet another reason for the Serras family to feel gratitude.
“Your family is your biggest asset,” Dennis says. “I don’t know how you could go through what I went through without family. I really don’t.”
Paula Gardner is Community News Director of AnnArbor.com. She can be reached at 734 623 2586 or by email.