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Unbreakable brotherly bond: Brothers beat same rare form of esophageal cancer, recover at Cleveland Clinic

The Foster's esophageal cancer diagnoses make up just 1% of cancer cases in the United States.
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Posted at 7:10 AM, Dec 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-16 08:01:02-05

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Jeff and Gary Foster have been side by side for as long as they can remember.

The Girard, Ohio siblings were born less than twelve months apart.

Having a brother they say—is like having a built-in best friend.

It's someone you can always lean on.

Their lives changed dramatically when a then 58-year-old Jeff was diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer in 2014.

"I actually started getting a tickle in my throat and then it got a little bit hard to swallow," said Jeff.

His brother Gary remained close to him and was there to help in his darkest moments.

Five years later, at age 63, Gary was diagnosed with the same debilitating esophageal cancer.

He too experienced the throat pain and had trouble swallowing.

It was a situation that left the siblings wondering how and why.

The timing was perplexing to them.

"He was declared cancer free in October '19, and I was diagnosed in January of '20," said Gary.

The Foster's described it as a true gut punch.

The Cleveland Clinic reports this particular type of cancer is so rare that it makes up just 1% of cancer cases across the United States.

But somehow even with a cancer diagnosis the adult-aged brothers treasured their friendship and looked out for one another even more.

"It frightened me. When he got it, I was devastated. But after he went through it and did so well he was my go-to. Every time I went to the Clinic, I'd talk to him and he would tell me what to expect," said Gary.

The Foster's both came to the Cleveland Clinic years apart, but they saw the same staff and doctors.

Gary said it was almost deja vu when staff members complimented his positive outlook on the situation and compared him to a prior patient who shared the same bright disposition.  

"The front desk woman said 'you remind me of a guy who used to come in here. He had this saying', turns out that was my brother a few years back!" Said Gary.

Years apart they completed the same mirror image treatment. Both brothers received aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Doctors ultimately performed an esophagectomy on each of them.

It's a complicated procedure where the surgeon removes some or most of the esophagus and surrounding tissue. They then create a new esophagus by pulling up part of the stomach into the chest and neck.

"My surgery was actually on Gary's birthday, November 14th," said Jeff.

Dr. Sudish Murthy, Cleveland Clinic staff surgeon and head of the General Thoracic Surgery section in the Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Institute says the diagnosis in siblings is extremely rare.

“Having performed more than 10,000 operations in my practice, I have not had two siblings as patients with this same type of cancer before. It’s quite unique,” said Dr. Murthy.

The Foster's story is one of strength, success and triumph.

"They were presented with this the same problem at close to the same stage, which is another unique coincidence. And they both seem to have had very, very good responses to the same therapy. So these guys are acting more like twins than they are siblings," said Dr. Murthy.

Dr. Murthy commends their attitudes and willpower to never give up even in the darkest of times.

"It's a unique presentation of unfortunately a bad problem, but they are both looking pretty good. And we're, of course, grateful for those brothers who trusted us with something that is very precious to them and that is their life," said Dr. Murthy.

And still side by side—the Foster's says it's all about perspective and believing you can get through it—sometimes with a little brotherly love.

"You have to have an idea that you're going to beat it. You got to have that fight in your soul for lack of a better word. You gotta believe," said Jeff.

The Foster's now go for regular screenings and checkups.

There is another Foster brother in the family.

Doctors are closely monitoring him just in case, but he is healthy and well. 

Bottom line—the Foster's stress early detection is so important.

They recommend everyone complete regular checkups and talk with family members about health and overall history.

At this point, it's still not clear how or why the Foster's were diagnosed with the same form of cancer.

In this case, doctors say it cannot be definitively linked back to any hereditary or environmental factors.

However, their story highlights the importance of paying attention to your body if there is an issue and getting the necessary help.