Bonnie Sorrells poses in her esophageal cancer survivor shirt at the QMG Cancer Institute.

Bonnie Sorrells had been experiencing acid reflux for years, which she self-treated with over-the-counter medication — until one day she had difficulty swallowing.

“It was like someone took a pine cone and drug it down my throat and down to my stomach. I couldn’t even stand to swallow water,” she said.

She called her gastroenterologist at the time, retired physician Dr. John Bozdech, with Quincy Medical Group (QMG), who scheduled an endoscopy, a test that looks at the inside of one’s esophagus, stomach, and the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum. The test was performed on March 30, 2021, and two days later, Sorrells got the results.

“It was April 1st at 6:15 p.m. on a Thursday in 2021. Dr. Bozdech called and the first thing I said when I heard the news was, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I couldn’t believe it,” Sorrells said. “It was adenocarcinoma cancer. The cancer was two inches in length and was in the bottom part of my esophagus and the top part of my stomach.”

The news was shocking, but her medical team at QMG got to work quickly. On April 2, she spoke with the office of Dr. Raymond Smith, QMG Medical Oncologist, and had her first appointment with him on April 5. A consultation with a surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis had been arranged. She also informed her primary care provider, Dr. Jennifer Schroeder at the QMG Mt. Sterling (IL) Clinic.

On April 12, Sorrells had a PET scan, a scan that helps detect cancer, and began her treatment regimen, which included 28 radiation treatments and six rounds of chemotherapy.

On her first day of radiation, a display of bracelets caught her eye. She picked one up and the message she saw would be one that would see her through the days and months ahead of her.

“The bracelets said ‘No one fights alone’ and I felt that. I knew I wasn’t alone in this and that the team at QMG was going to be with me,” she said.

She was bolstered by that support, especially in her lower moments. One particular moment represented a turning point for her mindset about her disease.

“There was a day during one of my chemotherapy treatments when I was really upset. My head hurt, and my hair was falling out,” she said. “One of the nurses explained, ‘Right now chemo is controlling your cancer, but you don’t have to let it control you.’ Oh my gosh! It put me in such a better perspective.”

Sorrells went home that day and decided to take action. She and her husband, Steve, shaved her head together.

“Her words were life-changing for me. I couldn’t handle the bits and pieces of my hair falling out,” she said. “So we went out on the deck, I held a mirror in front of me and we used clippers that you can set at different lengths. So, he would take one length off and then we would talk. Then he would take another length, then we would talk. We did it gradually.”

Her next step was to have surgery with a specialized surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

“The doctor in St. Louis was so amazed by how much the team at Quincy Medical Group had shrunk my cancer,” she said.

The surgery was much more significant than she anticipated. Bonnie’s recovery was long and difficult, and it took her 14 months to return to her daily routine.

“I was in Barnes for nine days. They removed two-thirds of my esophagus and the top part of my stomach and brought my stomach up to form a new esophagus. It was a much bigger deal than I could have ever imagined,” she shared.

As a result of the surgery and cancer treatment, Sorrells lost weight — going from 163 pounds to 93 pounds. She again received reassuring words from her new gastroenterologist, Dr. John Barbagiovanni.

“I cried every time I saw myself in the mirror. Dr. Barbagiovanni drew on a piece of paper and said, ‘This was your stomach. This is your stomach now. This may be all you’re ever going to weigh and that’s ok. As long as you don’t lose more,’” she recalled. “Hearing that helped me so much. He put me in a better frame of mind to accept where I was.”

During her recovery, her husband suggested she get a cancer survivor shirt. She wasn’t ready. She wanted to wait for a while until she knew for certain she was cancer-free. Until that day came, she started to gather some ideas for the shirt and enlisted the help of KLC, Inc., in Mt. Sterling. Together they landed on a design.

On the front, it has a butterfly, a representation of feeling free, as well as boxing gloves to show the fight it takes to battle chancer. On the back, it has the message “Fight Acid Reflux, Beat Esophageal Cancer.” The t-shirt was her way of building awareness and inspiring others to take acid reflux seriously and see their doctor.

Once she got back results from her CT scan, she was ready to put her t-shirt on. The shirt represented something bigger — her triumph over esophageal cancer and the strength and resilience it took to get her to this point.

“I remember at the beginning of all this, I said, ‘I’ll be glad when I get to the day when I can look back and say I can’t believe we got through this,’” she explained. “When I put on that shirt, I loved it. I don’t know how to express it. I was proud.”

Sorrells is inspired to build awareness of esophageal cancer and acid reflux. She continues visits with Dr. Barbagiovanni, Dr. Schroeder, and Dr. Smith.