After a lifetime of struggling with what he thought was acid reflux and heartburn, 36-year-old Nate was diagnosed with and died from Esophageal Cancer (EC) within just six months
I started dating Nate in high school. Then, and for as long as I knew him, he struggled with digestive issues. He would experience acid reflux or heartburn, but would just chalk it up to something he ate or his “sensitive stomach”. While he recognized that he had flare-ups of heartburn and reflux, he never pursued a visit to the doctor, and simply treated his symptoms with antacids or other over the counter medications.
Fast-forward to late 2010. Nate, who was 36 at the time, began to have trouble swallowing and keeping food in his stomach. The over the counter remedies that had previously brought him relief were not helping anymore. Aside from his reflux issues, Nate was a healthy man. He did not see a doctor regularly, because he was rarely sick. When the swallowing issues arose, he decided it was time to get checked out by a professional.
He quickly made an appointment with a primary care physician, who ordered a barium swallow to take a closer look at what was causing the regurgitation. Within 24 hours of the test, Nate was brought back into the office for an endoscopy. Being asked to return for additional testing within 24 hours is never a good sign, which we recognized right away. Our fears were confirmed when the biopsy revealed a positive diagnosis of esophageal cancer.
The cancer had taken over much of Nate’s esophagus and stomach. So much so, that the doctors could not definitively determine exactly where the cancer had started. Ultimately, the conclusion was made that it had originated in his esophagus.
Unfortunately, because the cancer had already spread throughout his stomach, Nate was not a candidate for an esophagectomy, where some or most of the esophagus and a portion of the stomach is removed, a common surgery to treat esophageal cancer. In this procedure, the upper part of the esophagus is connected to the remaining part of the stomach. Our team of doctors recommended chemotherapy and radiation treatment to shrink the tumors to make them more treatable.
During the spring of 2011, Nate began to experience severe headaches, which he thought were caused by allergies, an affliction he had always suffered from in the springtime. His oncologist ordered a scan to see if the headaches were caused by something else. On the day of the scan, Nate began to have seizures, and a spinal tap revealed that the cancer had spread to his spinal fluid. Nate was ordered to stop treatment for his cancer, and doctors began working with us to make sure he was confortable and without pain.
My husband Nate entered into hospice care on June 1st. He passed away about three weeks later on June 27th, a little more than six months after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
We had no idea that something like acid reflux or heartburn could ever be a warning sign for esophageal cancer. We both did our best to take care of ourselves – exercising when we could, eating correctly, and not over-indulging.
Since Nate’s passing, I try to encourage everyone not to ignore what may seem like a minor problem. Through regular conversations with your doctor, it is easier to understand what may be causing issues like acid reflux, and if there might be a larger problem.
In Nate’s case, however, even if he had been proactive with his care by seeing his doctor and getting tested for esophageal issues, it is likely they still would have found the cancer too late. The current methods for monitoring patients at risk for esophageal cancer are inadequate, and more comprehensive diagnostic and prognostic tests are needed to provide actionable information to physicians and patients at risk for esophageal cancer.