Joe Aigner couldn’t swallow his steak one Fourth of July. A diagnosis of stage IV esophageal cancer, an especially lethal form of the disease, came the next day. The next year brought multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery for cancer, nasty side effects, and open-heart surgery. Through it all, Joe leaned on his team – family, friends, and doctors – and his own strength to survive. Nine years later, Joe is cancer-free and a happy husband and father. Learn more about his story on the latest episode of the “Ryan Shazier 50 Phenoms” podcast.
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Announcer: Phenomenal challenges, phenomenal story. Next, on “Ryan Shazier’s 50 Phenoms,” from major setbacks to amazing comebacks.
Announcer: In this episode of “50 Phenoms,” Ryan Shazier talks with avid golfer Joe Aigner. Hear how he found the motivation to overcome esophageal cancer, quadruple bypass heart surgery, gout, shingles, and back surgery, all in the same year.
Ryan Shazier: How are you doing, Joe?
Joe Aigner: Great. Nice to meet you. Thank you so much.
Ryan Shazier: Nice to meet you also. Thank you so much for coming on and …
Joe Aigner: Appreciate that.
Ryan Shazier: … sharing your story with us. Can you tell me everything that happened on July 4?
Joe Aigner: July 4th, 2010, we went to a family gathering, just having steak on the barbecue, had taken my first bite and swallowed, and it just didn’t seem like it was going down. I took a drink, still didn’t seem like it was going down, brought it to my wife’s attention. And she’s an ER nurse, so she did kind of come up with what’s going on and determined that I would need to go to the hospital. There was something happening. Still, I just felt that maybe I swallowed wrong or something. You never want to think the worst, of course.
Ryan Shazier: Or it was the cooking.
Joe Aigner: Exactly. (Laughs) We got there, and they said, “We’re going to have to put you through a number of tests,” and what have you. Initially, because I was having pain in my chest from trying to really cough it up, they started looking at it from a cardiac standpoint. And then after some different scans and what have you, said that I would need an endoscopy for them to look. The next day they did that, on July 5, and determined that it was a tumor that was actually causing my esophagus to have tightened up to the point I wasn’t able to swallow. That’s a life-changing experience right there, when anybody tells you, “You have cancer,” and that’s when I was fortunate to have my wife in the field and for her to be such attentive to the details of finding out what type of cancer it is. Who do we need to look at: surgeon, oncologist? We found that Dr. Luketich was kind of the (Thomas E.) Starzl of the esophageal cancer situation. His issue was he was leaving for sabbatical at the time, it really took a lot on her part of diligence to finally get us an appointment, and we were able to get in there. He determined that I would need to be put on a feeding tube, which ended up being for almost a year.
Ryan Shazier: How long from after you finding out that you had throat cancer, I think on July 5, till the doctor telling you, you needed a feeding tube? How long of a process was that?
Joe Aigner: Fortunately, that was only a matter of a week. We were very fortunate, and due to her diligence in getting the appointment set. You really need a team. There’s no I in team, and there really isn’t. You need family to help you out, and then once you get there, the doctors that you need, it’s a team of doctors, from the oncologist to the surgeons, the radiology department. They determined I would go through a round of radiation, 28 days along with the chemo, and then they would retake another PET scan. And that PET scan, initially, along with the endoscope, is what determined that I had the tumor cancer cells that expanded into my lymph nodes in my chest and going up my neck – and there’s a scar behind here. They did those surgeries to try to see if they could get those lymph nodes out of my neck before they progressed to my brain.
Ryan Shazier: So you had first found out that you had esophageal cancer, and then you had another PET scan and found out that you had lymph nodes continuing to progress?
Joe Aigner: Right.
Ryan Shazier: Did you have to have another surgery for that?
Joe Aigner: They were going to initially do them both at the same time, but then they realized that it had progressed so far. Dr. Luketich actually stopped the surgery and came to my wife. He said that, “We need to stop (and) with your permission, go for more radiation and more chemo to try to curtail this.”
Ryan Shazier: When the doctor told you that, what was the thoughts that you had in your mind? What were you thinking?
Joe Aigner: To regress a moment: So, I have a 4-year-old (at the time). It was like, “Whatever you need me to do, you just tell me. I have 4-year-old, I’m not going to leave her, it just isn’t going to happen.” And he agreed. He said, “I understand where you’re coming from, but you’ve got to understand that you need to get your affairs in order because you have stage IV cancer. But we’ll do everything we can and we have very good outcomes from it, but it’s going to take a lot of perseverance on your part.”
Ryan Shazier: I kind of know where you’re coming from. I didn’t have cancer, but my son is 5 now and (my spinal injury) happened two years ago. My son was 3 like your daughter, and they told me I’d never walk again. They were saying just for a chance for you to walk, it’ll take a lot of resilience, a lot of perseverance. You’re just going to have to trust the process and continue to push every day. Those are some things that you never want to hear, especially when you have a 3-year-old, or you feel like you’re healthy. Every day you’re feeling like there’s nothing wrong with you: “It can’t be me.” Just to know that you’re going through that process and your kids are there with you and they’re seeing everything that you’re going through, that probably was some motivation for you to keep pushing.
Joe Aigner: Oh, it was, because she didn’t really understand what was going on; you’re still just dad. They come and expect you to do all the things that you were doing before, (like) picking them up. I couldn’t do that anymore because I had a feeding tube, and they said you can’t lift anything. As soon as I’d sit down, she’d be next to me in my arms. It was just knowing that I couldn’t do that right now, which was a bit devastating to me, of course. That gives you the inspiration that you need to persevere and move forward. I’m sure your rehab, it was far from pleasant. And there’s nobody that enjoys chemo and radiation. The first one you go, “Oh, I can deal with this.” You just don’t realize that’s just a small dose and then once it starts to build in your system, it kind of gets a little more restrictive, so to speak. And then that’s when the side effects kind of start to take place.
Ryan Shazier: So after dealing with weeks of chemo, then finding out you had to actually get more radiation, how did it affect you just knowing that that wasn’t your last step — there was more coming?
Joe Aigner: You keep going through the process, and they keep giving you the outline of where you need to go, and this is where we’re moving next. And then you end up with some setbacks all of a sudden. I had a PET scan done again after that initial one, and they found out that none of it worked. The tumor didn’t go down, it didn’t shrink. Dr Friedland in oncology sat down with us, and my wife being a nurse, she quizzes everybody and she kept diligent records. She wrote everything down. So she wanted to know what this new cocktail actually entailed, and he was like, “Well, it has platinum in it,” and this and that. He started into it, and she’s diligently writing everything down. He said, “You know what, you’re not going to be able to Google this. This is a new cocktail. We have nothing to lose, and we’re going to give it a shot.” We tried that along with some additional radiation. After another eight weeks, (there was) a definite reduction in the size. It was working in the right direction.
Joe Aigner: Everything started turning in my direction from that aspect, but then unfortunately now you’ve had so much chemo and radiation, the side effects start to happen. I got out of bed the one morning and I hit the floor, and it was like I could hardly stand up. I looked down, and my feet are swollen. My wife being a nurse, I always tease her about tucking in the corners of the sheets all the time, and they’re so tight. I couldn’t get my feet out. And she looks at them like, “Yeah, nothing to do with my sheets. You have the gout.” And I was like, “What is the gout?” I couldn’t even fit my feet in my shoes. She had to go and buy me larger shoes just to get down to the hospital. They said, “We took some blood work,” and she told me on the way down, “There’s prescriptions that you can take that will reduce that swelling and everything.” So I was all set for that. It was like, anything to make his pain go away. And Dr Friedland goes, “Yup, we have all that, but we can’t give it to you. When you’re on chemo, we can’t give you any of those type of drugs.”
Ryan Shazier: What was your thought process?
Joe Aigner: It just starts to get to the point you have to laugh – you have to move through it. He said the same thing: “You’re laughing.” I’m like, “I don’t know what else to do. It’s either laugh or cry. I was crying this morning when I hit the floor.” You just sit there and go, “Well, it’s just another day. We’ve got to just keep moving on.” I started getting through that, and probably three weeks later, same type of deal. Wake up in the morning, my back’s really bothering me. Show it to my wife, and she says, “I think you have shingles.” Another wonderful side effect possibly from the chemo because I wasn’t around anybody or anything that had it. Went down again, and they said, “We can’t give you anything for it.”
Ryan Shazier: Dealing with all this pain, how were you able just to continue to fight through it? Because I know that you’re dealing with the chemo and you’re trying to fight off the cancer, but you were dealing with a lot of pain and you couldn’t even do nothing about it. How were you able to continue to just push?
Joe Aigner: You just have to see the light to say, “Hey, it’s going to get better. I’m going to walk again, fight through this.” Now she’s 4 years old, I can’t just lay down and succumb to this. When you’re just sitting down and the blood’s not moving, it takes longer for you to heal and what have you. The more you move, the more your body wants to heal. I would drive my wife crazy at times. She would come home from work and it’s like I was stir-crazy. I had walked around outside. I want to get out, go around and see somebody, go to the store, go to the mall and walk around a little bit. At times because you’re on chemo, you shouldn’t be around other people. They check your blood counts and everything. It’s like, “Well, I’ll stay away from them, just take me for a ride,” type of deal.
Joe Aigner: You’ve got to have those little short-term goals. I’ve got to get dressed every morning. I can’t sit around in pajamas all the time. That’s what I would do. Every day, I had a goal that I was going to get in the shower, I was going to get dressed. When I went to chemo, I put my dress clothes on. I had khakis on, my polo button-down shirt. A lot of times people didn’t even realize that I was a patient. I would go into treatment area, and they would step in and say, “Can I help you?” It’s like, “I’m the patient that’s in here,” and they’d go, “Oh, OK.” Then they’d look for my band on my wrist. That was my way of overcoming what I was going through, if I just tried to progress it every other day and this was my job. My job was getting through this cancer and the other side effects that come along the way. (laughs)
Ryan Shazier: That’s amazing because with myself, I had short-term goals, and I used to call them first downs. Every time I’d get a first down, I would achieve a goal, or make a step, or just stand up. I would call that, “Oh, this is another first down,” because I’m a football player.
Joe Aigner: That’s right.
Ryan Shazier: Trying to relate these back to what’s comfortable to me. To you, you felt getting dressed and just being professional every day was a goal for you to get through chemo. I felt the same way for me. I think that positivity and that goal mindset really helps a lot of people get better every single day. I think that really helped you out a lot.
Joe Aigner: Oh, absolutely. Being in business and being always structured to be goal-oriented and looking at what’s my next objective, be it sales or what have you, my sales staff, what’s our projections and whatnot, that mindset of just keeping the ball rolling. As they always say, “If you don’t grow, you die,” that type of deal. “If I’m not moving, I’m not growing,” is where I was at my mindset overall.
Ryan Shazier: That’s amazing. After having the shingles and overcoming that, were there any more setbacks that you had to deal with?
Joe Aigner: So finally, we were to the point of surgery, and they said, “Well, we think we should do a stress test.” The doctor kind of looked at me. I was ready. He’s like, “Well, we could get you set up – it’s Monday, we could get you in on Wednesday.” I’m like, “I’m in. I’m ready to get this over with.” He said, “Well, we should maybe do a stress test, but how are you feeling?” “I feel great. I’m ready to go.” Dr. Luketich’s nurse, Amy McBroom, he was tied up with some other things, and she’d come in. UPMC is just amazing with their appointments. You don’t leave an appointment until you have your questions answered. Sometimes it extends the appointments to get in there, but at least when you leave, you definitely feel. It’s not like you’re going to the dentist by any means; this is your life. Amy was just adamant about, “I have it scheduled.” And I was like, “Oh, man,” because that moved back surgery until they got the results. She made it for the next day. I go in, I’m on the treadmill as you know. We’re just trucking along. I have one at home, no problems.
Joe Aigner: I didn’t think nothing of it while they do the nuclear side of it. Went in, did that, come back out, and we’re talking and everything. I come out, I thought I was good to go, and the doctor stepped out and my wife knew him, Dr. Adelstein. He said, “I’m going to need to talk to you both.” Then he took us in. He says, “Joe, you’re going to need four heart bypasses, like today. We don’t really know how you’re standing here right now. Your blockages are so severe. So severe, we’re going to take you by ambulance to Presby. I’ve already called Dr. Gleason, he’s waiting for you.”
Joe Aigner: That was another one of those moments that you start to reflect again. It was like, “Really?” Sitting down with Dr. Gleason the following morning, and then he said the same thing, “Four heart bypasses, you need to get your life in order again.” I’m thinking in my head, “I’m getting tired of hearing this again.” He said there’s great outcomes. I didn’t have any issues. I wasn’t short of breath. This was just a routine stress test. Initially, I was supposed to go in the next day for surgery, but it was Friday. He said, “You guys were involved in some games that Sunday, meaning the Steelers.” He says, “You don’t want to be here for the Steeler game, you’d rather be home.” I’m like, “Absolutely.” He’s like, “Why don’t you go home? Come back Monday afternoon and we’ll do the heart surgery.” I’m like, “I’m all in.” I call my wife up, and she’s like, “I don’t think so. Put him on the phone – you’re not coming home.” He convinced her, and she let me come home. Then I was back there on Monday, had surgery, and walked out Thursday.
Joe Aigner: To have four heart bypasses and to walk out of there basically three days later, it’s just a testament to UPMC and their staff. Dr. Gleason is amazing. There again, he’s like, “Joe, the only way you’re going to get out of here is you have to show me. You have to walk up that hall. There’s a dry erase board at the end, and you put a check next to your name every time you walk up and back, up and back.” There was 10 checkmarks. I’d go up and back. I’d come back in, go up and back. I’d do 10. I’d go up, I’d erase some, then I’d do circles and I’d do Xs. Then the nurses were harassing me for wearing the wax off the floor, but I was determined. The drains were starting to overcome, and the blood was actually coming out, unbeknownst to me, running down my leg and out onto the floors. I was walking the one time, and they stopped me. They’re like, “You know what?”
Ryan Shazier: You need to go back.
Joe Aigner: “You need to get back to your room.” So they made a point of telling him that, “He walks more than anybody we know. He walks up and down these halls more than us.” But I was determined to walk out of there. Because the only way was to get through this surgery to get the tumor out and having your chest wired back together and everything. The one evening the one doctor came in, I was talking to him about the surgeries. He says, “Do you have any questions about what’s coming up?” I said, “Well, I think I’ve experienced the hardest one.” He goes, “Oh, no.” He says, “Having heart surgery is being hit by a truck. When you have these esophagectomy, it will be being hit by a freight train. He says, “You wanted to know.” I’m like, “I would rather know so I know where from the esophagectomy that I would be in an induced coma for two days afterwards,” because they would have to deflate my lung and take out one of my ribs to be able to go in and take the tumor out. From that surgery, it was 30 days later for them to do the actual esophagectomy.
Ryan Shazier: Can you tell me about your support system, and who was it?
Joe Aigner: Absolutely. Basically, a team. My wife is an amazing coach and patient advocate. She was the one that really put together the team that I needed in the way of having a surgeon, being Dr. Luketich. He has led the esophageal cancer new surgery techniques and what have you, along with Dr. Friedland. Then, from my family: my brother, Rich, and Sue, my sister-in-law; my friends Mark and Debbie, David, Darryl, Mike and Joyce. Yeah. Everybody steps in because we had a 4-year old. We needed someone to help out there, keep an eye on her when I was at 28 days of radiation. First run was 12 weeks of chemo. You have to be there three days a week, and it’s hours each time you go. It makes it very difficult if you didn’t have a great family and friends. As they always say, “There’s no I in team,” and there truly isn’t when it comes to these type of situations, when you have kids or who you’re trying to overcome these issues with and for and you want to see them grow and you be part of their life.
Ryan Shazier: To me, I had the whole city of Pittsburgh, and my family were there for me by my side, but just also the support and the prayers that I’ve gotten. Just feeling the support, it might not even be there, but just the prayers and people that just want to see you healthy, sometimes that just uplifts you also.
Joe Aigner: I always say I’m a miracle of prayer and modern medicine.
Ryan Shazier: Can you please tell me about your setbacks?
Joe Aigner: With having esophageal cancer, the setbacks that kind of come from the side effects of the radiation and the chemo, it kind of started out initially, one morning I had the gout. Three weeks later, wake up again, I’ve got shingles. Every time I would go in, it was the same type of situation, that this is a possible side effect. We don’t often see it. Of course, I don’t want to miss out on anything. At that point, having found out that I now need four heart bypasses after having a stress test prior to surgery – to have to go through that – after having the four heart bypasses, then going in for the esophageal resection, thought everything was fine. Got home, and my daughter had been waiting patiently for nearly a year for me to be able to pick her up again, and they had taken the feeding tube out and they said, “You can lift now – 35, 40 pounds.” As soon as I got that OK, she was excited to have me pick her up. I pick her up, and immediately, I had just this pain in my back. I felt a pop. It just brought me to my knees, and due to the severe amount of radiation on my esophagus, it softened the vertebrae in my back. Two of my vertebrae collapsed. Then, I had to have another surgery after all those. They repaired my back, and they said, “Again, that’s just another side effect of the radiation and the chemo.”
Ryan Shazier: You’ve been through a lot. So, you would say it was your daughter that kept you going this whole time?
Joe Aigner: She was. When I went in the hospital the first time, she gave me this little Mickey Mouse that she always took to bed with her, and she says, “This will keep you safe.” We used to always tell her that when we went on plane rides and when we would go on vacation: “Take your stuffed animals, they’ll keep you safe.” I would always end up giving Mickey a kiss goodnight. My roommate the one time said, “Oh, you really like that Mickey.” (Laughs) My daughter was my inspiration. She was 3 when I was initially diagnosed; she turned 4 shortly thereafter. I just couldn’t see having her grow up without me and having missed that, and that was my inspiration every day. Whatever it takes, whatever I need to do, whatever chemistry they’ve got to put in me, I’m all in. It’s just the perseverance to get through it.
Ryan Shazier: I can say the same thing about my children. Every day I look at them, and I’m just truly blessed to have them, and I know how much I want to be impactful to their lives. I know I have to keep pushing just to make sure that they know that their father is here for them, no matter what.
Ryan Shazier: So Joe, why are we in a golf locker room?
Joe Aigner: The one saving grace that kept my sanity at times was being able to go around, and I had a putting mat in my basement, my game room. And fortunately, we have five acres of ground that I was able to do some chipping around by the house and hit some easy shots just to kind of break up the monotony of the day and take your mind off of things. There’s not a whole lot on afternoon television, to say the least. The Golf Channel was my saving grace. So then after, I get out and I felt like I was still active. That’s a big part of just trying to get that perseverance and like I said, trying to be goal-setting and saying, “OK, I want to go out and hit 10 balls today.” It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it just takes so much out of you: hit them, then go and walk. It gave me some exercise, got the blood moving again. It felt like I was able to accomplish something what I was looking for and keep my swing in.
Joe Aigner: I was a coach for the First Tee here in Pittsburgh, coach for the PGA Junior League that my daughter’s on. We were fortunate to come in first place this year. It was exciting. It’s a team event. That’s always been something. She had been a competitive dancer, and her mom was a dancer. She did extremely well at that. As things progressed, her ability in golf surpassed her dancing from the aspect that she was able to achieve things beyond her years. It’s been exciting to be able to still be here and see that progression. Golf’s always been one of those things for me in business: As you know, I have you for four hours on the golf course. We don’t have four hours in the office, but if we get out on the course, I’ve got your attention for four hours.
Joe Aigner: It’s been the same way with her. It’s our time. You learn a lot from the skills of learning how to drive the ball, putt the ball, chip the ball. And then the mental game that you kind of mess with them a little bit when they’re putting or whatnot, break her concentration a little bit. You have to call penalties on yourself. She’s learned a lot, and I think it’s a game for life. It keeps me inspired, seeing her grow with the game, and hopefully it’ll be something that she can do for the rest of her life.
Ryan Shazier: So golf helped you mentally overcome what you were dealing with, but also helped you grow your relationship with your daughter.
Joe Aigner: Right. It’s a mental game, by all means, just trying to keep focused and give you something to do. Sitting in front of the television set, after you get progressed so far along with the chemo, it keeps giving you limited ability to do different things and you get stuck at home for a period of time during your rehabilitation. Part of my rehabilitation was going to physical therapy, getting on the treadmill. I found out the elliptical was my nemesis. They kind of started you out on time: “Do three minutes of this.” I thought, “Well, three minutes. That’s no big deal.” Until you get on that thing – it’s a workout. The stair climber.
Ryan Shazier: Stair climber, I hated that. When I was in college, that was punishment for us. I already know, just trying to do it as rehab probably was horrible. I know it definitely does wonders for you.
Joe Aigner: It does. From a cardiac standpoint, it gets your heart rolling without a doubt and beating and moving forward. It was a great progression, and those were the kind of things that I got. It kept me motivated when I was down to 98 pounds. I’m about 130 or so now. I never thought that when they said, “Hey, you have to eat,” I’m like, “I’m all in there.” Just those little things that you take for granted. Even coming off of a feeding tube after being there on for a year, my wife would pack me snacks and a lunch to take with me in the car, and when I’d get home she’d check my bag and she’s like, “You ate two things all day – really?” It’s hard to believe, but you forget. You just forget to eat. You haven’t done it for so long.
Ryan Shazier: You had to rehab your body, even your mind, even your diet.
Joe Aigner: Just learning to eat again.
Ryan Shazier: Yeah, because you’re so used to eating a certain way for a year. Now, you have to actually start eating whole meals again. Truly been a mental game for you after the surgery.
Joe Aigner: Right, and starting out with, you couldn’t just jump back into whole foods. You had to start out with soft foods and kind of move your way up, get your digestive system back in order. It was a progression again. And there was all those little goals like you say each day, just a perseverance of saying, “OK, I’m going to do this today. Your diet, this is what I need to eat today. This is what I want to do for physical therapy today.” I just hope that it gives people hope that you have to look at the short-term goals. You’re not going to get well overnight, but it will happen. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t always a freight train. Sometimes, it is the light of a new day. That’s kind of the way I looked at it. I needed to look forward and see that whatever the day brings, I was happy when I woke up in the morning.
Ryan Shazier: Are you back to doing things that you always wanted to do?
Joe Aigner: We are very fortunate that my wife and I were able to start our own small business, and we started Steel City Lubricants & Supply here about six years ago. It’s been growing and very prosperous. We’ve been very fortunate that I had been in for almost 30 years, and my wife had always been there with me along that progression as well. So we were kind of familiar with it, had a good customer base of customers in our Pittsburgh market that we knew, and they’ve been very attentive to come on board with us. It’s been a goal that we both always wanted to achieve, and we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that. We’re excited about that every day.
Ryan Shazier: What are some of the goals that you have for the future?
Joe Aigner: I would love to have it grow to the point that it would be something that I could leave to my daughter and have her take over the business someday. She currently helps with the paperwork side: the bookkeeping, the filing. So she’s kind of learning the business. She goes out on occasion and does deliveries. That’s something that we’ve been moving toward as a long-term goal. Yeah, of course, she’ll tell you she would rather be on the LPGA Tour, and I hope that is the case someday. We’d love to see her on TV, and hopefully she’ll be signing autographs like you someday.
Ryan Shazier: Hey, maybe. How do you feel this experience changed you?
Joe Aigner: It’s been a life-changing experience. It started out in 2010. Now, it’s 2020. I’ve been fortunate enough to be cancer-free now for going on nine years. You always hope and pray that shoe’s not going to drop. Take a look at every day as a new day, and I’m going to make the best of every day because you just never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. And you can’t worry about it because you can’t change it. You just have to persevere and push through, have the hope that everything works out well. I’ve been a positive person by nature that if you don’t worry about it, it’s mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter type of situation. I’d go through that going through chemo. You have your bad days and say, “Well, hey, it’ll be better tomorrow. Forget about today.”
Ryan Shazier: I’m Ryan Shazier. I want to thank you for listening to my “50 Phenoms” podcast. Follow along with me by visiting upmc.me/50 Phenoms. Sign up to receive our emails and texts from those, too.