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 completely 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. I called several well-known Phoenix cancer centers looking for support and found none due to low survivor rates. So I decided to start my own. As a freelance writer and nurse, I had written articles about his diagnosis and journey before and after surgery and I had heard from other EC survivors who responded to my essays. This is how the Phoenix EC group, second only to Sloan Kettering in New York.
The group celebrated their seventh anniversary in February. We have now morphed into a general cancer group, including esophageal, breast, lung, colon, pancreatic, and others. Our goal is to offer comfort, education, teach coping skills, reduce anxiety, and provide a place for people to share common experiences. The group has unique attendees: Twelve EC survivors (including a 22-year, 12-year, ten-year, eight, six and five-year survivor), along with other cancer survivors, family, friends, and members of the community. Some come to learn about a specific disease process while others attend because they are supporting a family member or friend.
We meet once a month from 6-7:30 PM. At each meeting, an expert speaker presents information on the latest cancer treatments and related topics from nutrition, to healing touch, radiation and chemo therapy, clinical trials, toxic ingredients in our environments, researching techniques, and naturopathic medicine. We are hosted by Bink’s Midtown Restaurant, a local bistro in Phoenix. Refreshments are provided along with complimentary valet parking.
One of our original attendees, Deanne, lost her brother to esophageal cancer two weeks before his 50th birthday. She attended her first meeting, passed around a photo of her late brother, a robust man in a jogging suit and said, “I’m here to honor my brother and to support all of you.” Deanne has attended every meeting over the past few years. Another member, Harold, our 22-year EC survivor (he’s 84-years old), occasionally plays Klezmer music on his saxophone during special occasions. Ken, a 15-year survivor, has been blessed with surviving cancer twice.
Michael died on November 16, 2010, after a 25-month battle with metastasis to the spine, bone, and liver. He missed only one meeting before he died—when he was hospitalized. It is in honor of him that we offer the Michael Ratner Memorial Support Group to all cancer patients, their families and friends, and the community.
By the Numbers
The American Cancer Society estimated 16,980 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2015. The estimates include:
- 13,570 men diagnosed
- 3,410 women diagnosed
- 15,590 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