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Obama’s sore throat could be a lifesaver

Mindy Mintz Mordecai

News that President Barack Obama’s persistent sore throat was triggered by reflux disease was a terrible reminder of my husband’s reflux symptoms.

The persistent choking Monte experienced when lying down at night was our only warning that his life was in danger. But we didn’t take notice because we weren’t even aware that he had reflux disease or that a seemingly innocuous condition like that could kill him.

But we found out when Monte had difficulty swallowing and his doctors discovered the large tumor blocking his esophagus. Despite weeks of punishing chemo-radiation and radical surgery to remove his esophagus, Monte survived less than a year after diagnosis. Our daughters were just 9 and 12.

Angry doesn’t begin to describe my feelings when we realized my husband would lose his life to a preventable disease caused by something as common as reflux disease! We couldn’t fathom how it was possible we never knew the symptoms of reflux disease — or that it could be deadly.

The hope of preventing other families from experiencing our heartbreak led to formation of the national non-profit organization, ECAN, the Esophageal Cancer Action Network. ECAN is making a difference in the fight against Esophageal Cancer. But President Obama’s sore throat may offer one of the best opportunities to alert Americans that reflux disease doesn’t just cause heartburn, it’s a serious health condition, not to be ignored.

In reflux disease, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, stomach contents (including stomach acid) back up into the esophagus, causing symptoms such as a sore throat, hoarse voice, coughing, choking and heartburn. It can also cause a type of esophageal cancer called adenocarcinoma that’s increased in the U.S. by 600 percent in the past 35 years. Because there are no early symptoms of esophageal cancer, most patients are diagnosed at late stages, like my husband was, when treatment is rarely successful. Fewer than 1 in 5 patients survive more than five years.

A condition known as Barrett’s esophagus often precedes this type of cancer. It can be treated so that patients avoid developing cancer. But like the early stages of esophageal cancer, Barrett’s esophagus presents no symptoms. That’s why it’s so important that reflux disease be taken seriously. As in my husband’s case, its symptoms can be the only warning sign those at risk of esophageal cancer ever receive — until it’s too late.

As a 53-year-old male, President Obama should take reflux seriously. Men are four times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer and more so over the age of 50. If his reflux symptoms persist, the president should consider an endoscopic examination to be certain he is not at risk.

If you have a persistent, unexplained sore throat, hoarse voice, coughing or choking, or family history of Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal cancer, please see your health care provider. Reflux disease won’t cause cancer in most cases. But there’s no reliable way to tell if you will be so lucky. And if you are not, catching your condition early could save your life.

Mindy Mintz Mordecai is founder, president and CEO of ECAN, the Esophageal Cancer Action Network, Inc.