Stephen Eldredge coaches Rozi Tabachnick, left, and Ana Thompson, Northampton High School students, through a drama warm-up exercise.
To tell his story, cancer survivor Stephen Eldredge is considering writing a two-act play.
Act One would open when protagonist Eldredge is diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. Eldredge, challenged by this cancer villain and prepared to take it on with the same fervor with which he has led his life, never anticipates the unexpected complications that arise.
True to the two-act play formula, things fall apart in the second half when Eldredge — now hospitalized — is in extreme pain. Tethered to medical equipment, he is depressed, frustrated, and experiencing morphine-induced paranoia. Eldredge has lost control of his body. But if cancer can have a lighter, humorous side, Eldredge discovers that perspective with help from a resilient team of caregivers who, from diagnosis through outpatient therapy, have taught him the value of teamwork and positive thinking.
It Takes a Team
Michael Stamm, MD
Prior to his Jan. 12 diagnosis date, Eldredge, a theater teacher at Northampton High School and a local actor, never thought much about doctors, let alone a team of medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, ear, nose and throat surgeons, infectious disease physicians, pain management experts, nurses, dietitians, and therapists who would come to care for him over the next seven months.
"When Michael Stamm told me I had cancer, my field of vision turned blue. And then I was OK," recalled Eldredge, 55. "Dr. Stamm took time to listen to my symptoms. He biopsied me right away, and I credit my early diagnosis to Dr. Stamm."
Sean Mullally, MD
Knowing what needed to get done, Eldredge, and his wife, Laurie Wojtuski, a nurse, began "cold-calling doctors." Among the first he met was Dr. Sean Mullally, a medical oncologist Eldredge describes as a "big, teddy-bearish man."
"Right off the bat, Dr. Mullally told me he has an interest in head and neck cancers. After Dr. Mullally spoke with me for 45 minutes, I had a plan," recalled Eldredge, a self-described challenge-oriented person. "We just clicked."
At that time, the cancer "experience" Eldredge was about to face didn’t scare him. "I had great support from the moment of diagnosis, and never felt I was in serious danger. I knew I would experience a lot of discomfort, and that rehabilitation would be a big challenge," he remembered.
Jennifer Hyder, MD
A Plan to Combat Cancer
Due to the location of the tumor, surgery was not recommended. Instead, Eldredge would be "blitzed" with potent drugs — a process called induction therapy — to kill the cancer cells.
Within a week of the diagnosis, Dr. Mullally organized Eldredge’s tests, scans, and consultations, including a second opinion with experts at a Boston-area hospital that ultimately recommended the same treatment Eldredge received at Cooley Dickinson. Eldredge met with Jennifer Hyder, MD, a radiation oncologist, who worked closely with Mullally to monitor Eldredge’s treatment plan.
Eldredge had a total of nine weeks of chemotherapy and chemotherapy coupled with radiation. "It’s the most aggressive and challenging form of treatment for this type of cancer,"
Dr. Hyder said.
I had great support from the moment of diagnosis, and never felt I was in serious danger. I knew I would experience a lot of discomfort, and that rehabilitation would be a big challenge."
— Stephen Eldredge, cancer survivor
By late July, Eldredge finished the chemo/radiation regiment, but he was unable to speak or eat. He was frustrated and somewhat depressed by the slowness of his convalescence.
Things seemed to get markedly worse one Saturday afternoon when Eldredge’s neck swelled to twice its size. Mullally admitted Eldredge to Cooley Dickinson, where he spent five days. Eldredge said he was "genuinely frightened and I was worried that this setback had something to do with the cancer."
Surrounded by doctors and nurses, Eldredge’s team discussed his care while other staff took blood, hung IVs, and took X-rays. This scene — which Eldredge described as something out of the TV medical drama House — occurred for hours until test results determined he had a reaction to the cancer drugs, was dehydrated, and might have contracted mumps. His team had found the right antibiotics and showed care and concern. "These nurses, doctors, and therapists are wonderful, kind, resilient people who put so much of themselves into caring for their patients," Eldredge said.
A New Outlook
In September, Eldredge started his eighth year at Northampton High School, where he and his students renovated a former aerobics studio into a black box theater. He continues with outpatient speech therapy at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.
"My doctors told me I have a 90 percent likelihood of full recovery."
Coming out of the pain and trauma of the initial cancer treatment and the setback "catapulted" Eldredge out of the lethargy and sadness he had experienced. He said, "The energy, commitment, dedication, and yes, the humor, of my caregivers really impressed me. These people helped me appreciate what was around me. I love them all!"