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When heartburn leads to heartache
I N S I D E …
PHOTO BY FRANK KLEIN
By Carol Sorgen Mindy Mintz Mordecai is a familiar face to many from her years serving as a reporter and program host on Maryland Public Television, WBAL channel 11, and WYPR-FM, where she was named Baltimore’s Best Radio Talk Show Host by the Baltimore City Paper. As recently as five years ago, Mordecai had a successful career as both a broadcast reporter and attorney. She was also happily married to her husband John (known to all as Monte), and mother to daughters Mara and Maya. But then the family’s life took a tragic turn when John was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer. He died just a year later, leaving Mordecai trying to understand how this could have happened. “From being a reporter, I thought I was pretty aware of health issues,” said the 53year-old Pikesville resident. “But I was flabbergasted when I found out that esophageal cancer can be caused by reflux disease [heartburn].”
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Sobering statistics While her husband was ill, Mordecai spent countless hours online looking for treatments that could save his life. She thought there would be many organizations to which she could turn. What she found, however, was that public — and even medical — awareness of esophageal cancer was alarmingly low, even though it’s one of the fastest increasing cancer diagnoses in the U.S. Every day, an estimated 25 million American adults suffer from Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD) or heartburn. The condition occurs when food and stomach acid back up into the esophagus, irritating its sensitive lining. Some experts believe that 40 percent of adults experience heartburn every month. Some people with GERD will develop a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. Patients with Barrett’s esophagus have a 30to 125-fold increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. Persistent backup of acid from the stomach alters the normal cells lining the esophagus, causing a change in the DNA that can allow cancer cells to take over.
ARTS & STYLE Mindy Mintz Mordecai gave up her career as a reporter and talk show host to establish and run the Esophageal Cancer Action Network following the death of her husband from the disease. The nonprofit organization raises awareness of esophageal cancer, particularly its link with heartburn.
The incidence of esophageal cancer due to any cause increases with age. About 8 out of 10 people diagnosed are between the ages of 55 and 85. (Mordecai’s husband was 63 when he died.) Despite these statistics, said Mordecai, few people understand that heartburn can cause cancer. And currently, only one in five patients diagnosed with esophageal cancer will survive five years, largely because the disease is usually detected at late stages. But if esophageal cancer is caught in pre-cancerous or early cancer stages, patients have a good chance for survival.
common as heartburn had caused her husband’s cancer, and determined that no other family should suffer a loss because of this devastating disease, three years ago Mordecai founded the national Esophageal Cancer Action Network (ECAN). Mordecai and the ECAN board of directors, comprised of physicians and business leaders, are working to increase awareness about the link between heartburn and cancer, and support increased funding of research for esophageal cancer treatment, detection and prevention. “So many people believe heartburn is benign,” said Mordecai, noting that doc-
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