Esophageal cancer (EC) sneaks up on people. My husband, Michael Ratner, (owner of a trendy Phoenix restaurant), was diagnosed with EC on my birthday, October 9, 2008. He had difficulty earlier in the week after he swallowed a piece of carrot, which left him coughing when it became lodged in his esophagus. Two days later, after an endoscopy, the diagnosis was official—adenocarcinoma esophageal cancer.
As an RN, I knew Michael’s health grades were excellent except for a history of recurrent gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which he frequently treated with Tums. He bicycled 20+ miles twice a week, worked out three days a week and watched his diet and weight. None of those things would save him.
I didn’t know much about esophageal cancer when I heard the diagnosis, except that most patients with this disease did not survive. It didn’t take me long to research it online and in the hospital’s medical library. The grim news became the first secret between us. I kept an upbeat disposition, a smile on my face, and for the first time since we married, I wasn’t honest with him.
I’m now an expert on esophageal cancer. As many as 15 million Americans experience heartburn every day. Persistent heartburn (two or more times per week) or GERD can cause stomach acid to splash into the esophagus, producing cellular changes that can ultimately result in cancer.
About three million Americans currently have what is known as Barrett’s Esophagus, a precancerous condition that results in as much as a 125-fold increase in an individual’s chance to develop esophageal cancer. Often, esophageal cancer is not discovered until it has reached advanced stages.
The good news is that new medical techniques have been developed that can virtually cure patients if detected at an early stage.
I quickly became an astute student of the transhiatal esophagectomy (THE), a surgical procedure which would be performed when my husband had his business and personal matters settled, as one surgeon advised. When I looked at my husband, a robust man, I wondered what the results of this surgery might be—a surgery which entails removing ¾ of the esophagus and stretching the stomach vertically to replace the removed muscle, leaving behind a portion of the stomach.
A month after Michael’s THE procedure, I went searching for an EC support group, not just for him, but for both of us—patient and caregiver.
The formation of the lecture series came about after I called several well-known Phoenix cancer centers looking for a support group for EC patients and their families. After finding no specific groups for EC, due to low survivor rates, I decided to start my own. This is how our lecture series started 13 years ago.
Our goal is to continue to offer comfort, teach coping skills, and provide a place for people to share their experiences. The group began and continues with unique attendees. Some come to learn about a specific disease process while others attend because they are supporting a family member or friend.
One of our original attendees, Deanne Poulos, lost her brother to esophageal cancer two weeks before his 50th birthday. She attended our first lecture meeting, passed around a photo of her late brother, and said, “I’m here to honor my brother and to support all of you.” Poulos attended every lecture. Another member, Harold Riffer, our 22-year cancer survivor (he’s 88-years old), occasionally plays Klezmer music on his saxophone during special occasions. Ken Lange, a 19-year survivor, had been blessed with surviving cancer twice.
Michael died on November 16, 2010, after a 25-month EC battle with metastasis to the spine, bone, and liver. He missed only one lecture before he died—when he was hospitalized. It is in honor of him, that we offer the Michael Ratner Memorial Lecture Series to all patients, their families and friends, and the community.
By the Numbers
The American Cancer Society estimated 20,640 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2022. The estimates include:
- 16,510 men diagnosed
- 4,130 women diagnosed
- 16,410 deaths
Terry Ratner was married to Michael Ratner and formed the Michael Ratner Memorial Community Support Association. Here are links to newspaper articles about the group:
Phoenix North Central News