In late summer of 2009, Jacques Apruzzese was a competitive martial arts fighter and instructor – weighing in at 192 pounds of solid muscle.
But a 12-pound weight loss over a span of two weeks and a bout of vomiting sent Apruzzese to see his doctor in August of that year. Within a week, he had a new fight to undertake – against an insidious esophageal cancer that had already spread to the upper part of his stomach and lymph nodes. What followed was a two-year odyssey to regain his health.
“It was a pretty dramatic change in lifestyle,” Apruzzese said. “From doing things where people, for lack of better words, looked up to me as a fighter to not being able to fight.”
Apruzzese sought help in his fight from the staff at Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, where a multidisciplinary team approach was employed to tackle his disease.
Radiation and a round of chemotherapy were started immediately in an effort to shrink the cancer enough for other measures to be effective. A radical surgery followed, with the removal of Apruzzese’s esophagus, half of his stomach and several lymph nodes. Since that surgery and the subsequent recovery period, Apruzzese has gone through more chemotherapy and radiation to try to halt the disease, which has spread to his spine and two other areas in his back and is now classified as a stage IV cancer.
“I teach regularly, I drive my bike, go fishing. Is it all at the same level as before? Definitely not. Will it ever be? Definitely not. But you come to acceptance and a reality check that this is the cards you’ve been dealt and you deal with that,” Apruzzese said. “Some people have been dealt worse hands. Some people get up in the morning and they get killed. They don’t have a chance to plan activities, do their bucket list, live life to the extent that you can. Most people don’t get that chance. I’m fortunate. I got that chance and this place [the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center] has a lot to do with that.”
Apruzzese says without the support of the multidisciplinary team of doctors and nurses, as well as support services like nutrition, physical therapy and counseling, he’s not sure he would have survived.
“They’re not here because it’s a job. I get more of a sense that they care about being in a cancer center providing service and assistance,” he said.
Although he was not eligible for any clinical trials, there was never a sense that Apruzzese didn’t have options to fight cancer.
“It was very, very quick paced,” said Apruzzese, who was diagnosed and began treatment with days of the initial visit to his doctor. “There was no fooling around which is very comforting because you feel like you’re being taken care of.”
Nurse navigators assigned to patients like Apruzzese become their “lifelink,” he said.
“They’ve seen it all, done it all. You can call them for anything and they’ll help you, support you, sponsor you,” Apruzzese said. “They’re a different breed of people.”
Apruzzese said he never thought about going anywhere else once he saw the equipment, the technology and the people who would be involved with his care at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.
“Once I came over here and saw how it was … why would I drag myself out there?” he said. “I felt very, very comfortable with the decision and I stand behind my decision to stay here. It’s very, very personalized care from dedicated people.”