When Dan Dahl was diagnosed with trachea cancer, he looked at his two sons, then ages 6 and 9, and determined: I've got to stay alive to raise these boys.
He had just turned 40 when shortness of breath and bouts of coughing sent him to a pulmonologist at Virginia Mason. After a number of tests, a tumor was found on his trachea. The tumor was not malignant at the time, and over the next six months, Dan underwent laser therapy in an attempt to vaporize it. But the tumor was aggressive. Not only did it grow back on both sides of his trachea, it also turned into squamous cell carcinoma.
While other types of cancer can spread to the trachea (also called the windpipe), cancer that originates in the trachea is very rare, accounting for less than 0.4 percent of all cancers. Tracheal tumors are often difficult to diagnose because they are slow growing and don't always show up on initial imaging.
Squamous cell carcinoma is usually associated with smoking, but Dan had never smoked. Instead, he was young and fit, an avid skier and hiker who had climbed Mount Rainier a few years before.
Because the blood supply to the trachea is so delicate, surgery to remove a tumor in the windpipe can be quite complex. In Dan's case, surgeons at Virginia Mason removed one of his ribs to gain access to his trachea. After surgery, he underwent three months of radiation therapy.
And that was it. Two years after cancer treatment, he conquered Mount Rainer again in a celebration of life. Now, more than 27 years after treatment, he's had no recurrence of cancer.
“I owe my life to Virginia Mason…I can get great doctors and great care for just about anything.”
But he has had other conditions that brought him back to Virginia Mason. At 57, cardiologists discovered a blockage of the left main artery of his heart, which required bypass surgery. In harvesting a vein in his leg to be used for the bypass, doctors were able to use endoscopes and small incisions — instead of the traditional open surgery — to retrieve the vein. This made a huge difference in Dan's recovery, and he was soon back to taking his five-mile walks.
Then, a few years ago, Dan came back to Virginia Mason for repair of a hiatal hernia that was so massive it was pressing his stomach up into the chest cavity, making it difficult to breath. Thoracic surgeons did the repair, which dramatically improved his lung capacity.
Through it all, Dan never missed a ski season. Today, at 67, he and his wife, Sandy, spend winters in Sun Valley, Idaho, and ski about 60 times a year. Both are grateful to Virginia Mason for helping them live a full life together.
“I owe my life to Virginia Mason,” he said. “I feel like I can get great doctors and great care for just about anything.”
And those two little boys Dan was so determined to raise? They grew up to be fine young men. And now, with grandchildren aged 4 and 9, Dan is enjoying watching the next generation grow up as well.