After she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, DeeDee Rescher received top-notch care closer to home, thanks to USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center’s presence in Orange County.
In a twist of fate, DeeDee Rescher is alive today because of a cancer diagnosis.
The actress, whose many roles include the bus driver in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” discovered she had tongue cancer in 2018. She had surgery and radiation to eradicate it — and the experience taught her to stay vigilant.
“Once you’ve had cancer, you’re on alert,” says DeeDee, 70, who lives in Long Beach. “Anything you feel, you want to find out what it is.”
That’s why two years later, after feeling soreness in her chest, she called her primary care doctor. He initially treated her for acid indigestion, which failed to ease her symptoms.
DeeDee was also having regular scans as part of her follow-up care for tongue cancer. Her primary care doctor decided to look at her most recent scan.
“He saw something teeny on the scan and told me to get an endoscopy,” DeeDee says. “It turned out I had esophageal cancer.”
Early intervention for squamous cell carcinoma
In March 2020, DeeDee was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that forms in the tissue lining of the esophagus. The most common warning sign is difficulty swallowing.
The doctor who had operated on DeeDee’s tongue connected her with Minh Nguyen, MD, a medical oncologist with USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Keck Medicine of USC, which recently expanded its treatment offerings in Newport Beach.
Dr. Nguyen describes DeeDee as “lucky” because the cancer was caught early and hadn’t yet spread to her lymph nodes.
“This form of cancer tends to be very aggressive,” Dr. Nguyen says. “Had she never had tongue cancer, the esophageal cancer might have been much more advanced by the time she found it.”
DeeDee says Dr. Nguyen made her feel safe and optimistic that she could beat cancer a second time.
“Dr. Nguyen makes you feel like you’re with a family member who’s going to give you the best care,” she says. “He gives off this vibe that you’re in good hands. Every time I saw him, it would be a relief because he would give me the confidence that I could go on.”
DeeDee was also relieved to have access to treatment in Orange County, close to her home in Long Beach.
Treating esophageal cancer with esophagectomy
Dr. Nguyen describes esophageal cancer as one of the toughest to treat. He had DeeDee undergo six weeks of chemo and radiation — the side effects of which are very painful. The treatment burns the patient’s throat, which makes chewing and swallowing difficult.
“She always came in with her humor and her attitude was always, ‘I’m going to beat this,’” Dr. Nguyen says.
The second phase of DeeDee’s treatment was an operation called an esophagectomy, performed by John Lipham, MD, a gastrointestinal surgeon with Keck Medicine who specializes in esophageal issues.
Through incisions in her neck and stomach, Dr. Lipham removed DeeDee’s esophagus and then constructed a new one using a portion of her stomach.
Dr. Nguyen makes you feel like you’re with a family member who’s going to give you the best care…Every time I saw him, it would be a relief because he would give me the confidence that I could go on.DeeDee Rescher, esophageal cancer patient, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center
“I was so scared to have this operation,” DeeDee says, adding that a Keck Medicine support group helped give her the courage to go through with it.
Although DeeDee experienced complications that kept her hospitalized for longer than she had hoped, she has high praise for the team that took care of her.
“You put all your energy into surviving, and all these people selflessly give their strength, love, friendship and expertise,” DeeDee says. “And when I got my first scan that said I was cancer-free, I went to every person I had seen during my entire journey and said thank you.”
Lifestyle adjustments and follow-up care for esophageal cancer
To recover from her esophagectomy, DeeDee had in-home nursing care for six weeks and slowly built up the ability to eat solid foods again.
Three years later, DeeDee eats smaller, more frequent meals because her stomach fills quickly, and she takes daily medication targeting the acid in her stomach. Her follow-up treatment includes regular endoscopies as well as scans and blood tests.
“At this point, DeeDee is considered cured,” Dr. Nguyen says. “She’s beaten cancer twice — she got hit by lightning twice and beat it twice.”
Thanks to her treatment, DeeDee has been able to continue her acting career. She is currently co-starring in the Disney series “Bunk’d.”
“When you’re going through cancer, it’s one step at a time,” DeeDee says. “And, with the encouragement of people like Dr. Nguyen, comes the belief in yourself that you can do this. As frightening as it is, you can overcome cancer.”