Ryan Shazier

Joe Aigner didn’t know how much his life would change as he sat down to his Fourth of July dinner in 2010.

The first bite Joe took of his steak wouldn’t go down, no matter how hard Joe tried. It felt like something was blocking the meat’s path to his stomach.

Joe’s wife, Carol, convinced him to go to the hospital to find out the problem. Detailed tests revealed stage IV esophageal cancer, a rare but particularly lethal form of the disease. The original tumor – which was causing his swallowing problems — had spread from his esophagus to the lymph nodes in his neck.

“It’s a devastating diagnosis anytime somebody says cancer,” Joe says.

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It wouldn’t be the only one. Joe went through two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor in his esophagus. The therapies weakened his immune system to the point where he developed some serious side effects, including bouts with gout and shingles.

With a wife and 4-year-old daughter, Joe focused on survival: He wasn’t about to let cancer, or anything else, beat him.

“You’ve got to have those little short-term goals,” Joe says. “Every day, I had a goal that I was going to get in the shower. I was going to get dressed.”

After one surgery to remove the cancer from his lymph nodes, Joe went through another round of chemotherapy and radiation. But as he prepared for surgery to remove the tumor from his esophagus, another problem was discovered: Joe had heart disease that required bypass surgery.

That surgery went successfully. A month later, so did the surgery to remove the tumor.

Nine years later, Joe is living cancer-free with Carol and daughter Izabela, his two biggest motivations for survival. He is especially grateful for the team that helped him during his many battles. Carol, a nurse, was his biggest patient advocate. A team of doctors, nurses, and clinicians helped him survive. And family and friends provided necessary support.

After his long medical battle, Joe changed some things in his life. He created his own small business. An avid golfer, he introduced the game to Izabela, and she now ranks as the best in her age group in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t always a freight train,” Joe says. “Sometimes it is the light of a new day.”

About UPMC

A $23 billion health care provider and insurer, Pittsburgh-based UPMC is inventing new models of patient-centered, cost-effective, accountable care. The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC integrates 92,000 employees, 40 hospitals, 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient sites, and a 4 million-member Insurance Services Division, the largest medical insurer in western Pennsylvania. In the most recent fiscal year, UPMC contributed $1.4 billion in benefits to its communities, including more care to the region’s most vulnerable citizens than any other health care institution, and paid more than $800 million in federal, state, and local taxes. Working in close collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, UPMC shares its clinical, managerial, and technological skills worldwide through its innovation and commercialization arm, UPMC Enterprises, and through UPMC International. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside among the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. For more information, go to UPMC.com.