Heartburn Can Be Fatal


Written by: Chris Lomon

Brian and John Savage are willing to work overtime in getting their important message to the masses. Over his 12 years in the National Hockey league, Brian, who retired on September 21, 2006, earned a reputation as a stand-up individual, respected and admired for his unselfish demeanor.

And although he's not patrolling the left wing on hockey's elite stage anymore, the native of Sudbury, Ontario, is working harder than ever to make a difference. 

You could even say he's on a mission of sorts, motivated to educate as many people as possible about the cancer that took his older brother's life. "I feel compelled to let anybody, including my hockey family, know about the dangers of developing esophageal cancer," said the veteran of nearly 700 regular season NHL games, who watched his brother, Mike, a former Winnipeg Jets' draft choice, succumb to the disease on December 19 of last year, at age 42. "I had never heard of it before and never knew what caused it, but now I do." 

Esophageal cancer (EC) is defined as a cancer that forms in tissues lining the esophagus (the muscular tube through which food passes from the throat to the stomach). Two types of esophageal cancer are squamous cell - which has been tied to smoking and excessive drinking; and adenocarcinoma - which seems to be more closely related to heartburn, and possibly other things, like hazardous chemicals, inhalants, et cetera. 

Estimated new cases and deaths from esophageal cancer in the United States in 2007 are listed at 15,560 and 13,940, respectively. In Canada, there are an estimated 1,500 new cases of esophageal cancer diagnosed each year. 

Squamous cell used to be the predominant "type" of EC - but that situation has reversed in recent years and it is adenocarcinoma which has taken the lead - accounting for most new cases of EC. It is also being seen more often in relatively young people, where in years past it was a so-called "old folks" disease. It's been called an epidemic by some experts - and they're struggling to catch up and get to the bottom of it. 

Bill Cameron, a respected Canadian journalist, passed away from the disease on March 11, 2005. Both Cameron and Savage succumbed to the disease a short nine months after being diagnosed. Cameron's widow, freelance journalist Cheryl Hawkes, had also never before heard of esophageal cancer and published a warning article about it last spring in a number of Canadian newspapers. 

The Savage family is hoping to combine their efforts with Hawkes this year to reach as many people as possible. 

"It isn't the form of cancer that is most prevalent at this time, but it has the highest rate of increase," noted John Savage. "From speaking with doctors, they have no doubt that many of the cases of the adenocarcinoma type are caused by acid reflux or plain old heartburn. Mike suffered from heartburn off and on for at least 10 years before being diagnosed with cancer." 

While early esophageal cancer does not cause symptoms, latter symptoms can include difficult or painful swallowing, severe weight loss, pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades, hoarseness or chronic cough, vomiting and coughing up blood. 

Often, as in Mike's case, the only sign of this cancer is difficulty in swallowing. But by the time this occurs it is usually too late as the cancer will have spread to other parts of the body. It is possible to survive if EC is diagnosed early, but it may mean being aggressive with your doctor to have a scope done of your esophagus when something just doesn't seem right in that area. 

After conversations with several experts on the subject, including the highly respected Montreal Canadiens team doctor, Dr. David Mulder, Brian believes hockey players and all athletes could be at risk to develop the disease. 

"As athletes, we do certain things to our bodies that others don't," said the former 171st overall selection in the 1991 Entry Draft. "We eat a pre-game meal and then take a nap. We have sport drinks that are hard on the stomach. We eat a lot of pasta with tomato sauce. And after games, we go out, have something to eat and drink and then go to bed. It's tough on your system." 

It was enough to prompt both father and son to get tested. 

"We need to address this and there are ways to help it," noted Brian. "When I got my scope, they discovered I had symptoms that could ultimately lead to esophageal cancer. I have a condition called Barrett's esophagus, a condition in which the color and composition of the cells lining the lower esophagus change because of repeated exposure to stomach acid. 

"Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the fancy name given to the chronic regurgitation of acid from your stomach into your lower esophagus. And, long-term GERD can sometimes lead to Barrett's esophagus. Once Barrett's esophagus is diagnosed, there's a greater risk of developing esophageal cancer, which often spreads from the esophagus to lymph nodes and to other organs or the bones." "This is about helping people understand how deadly esophageal cancer is and how easily it can be prevented," said John. "In speaking with doctors and other professionals, we've learned that this is becoming a very serious issue. It's a sad thing, really. There are ways to prevent it, so that is why we want to let everyone know about it. If you or anyone you know has chronic heartburn, see your doctor for advice. 

"This is a sneaky and very aggressive cancer, and not having heartburn isn't necessarily a sign that you're ok. Bill Cameron had occasional heartburn but nothing that would be called chronic. Anything in that area that doesn't seem right should be checked out because it's a murky area that once compromised, bites back hard." 

"Brian has spoken to hundreds of people already, but we want to continue to deliver the message. We want to put a headline on it that will make people aware of the disease." 

Brian concurs. "It puts everything in perspective," said the four-time 20-goal scorer, who is currently working towards getting air-time during a nationally televised hockey broadcast to discuss the issue. "The one thing we can do is get the message out there. The people I've talked to so far are definitely on board." 

Still, both father and son admit their work is just beginning. 

"This is what I want to do," said Brian, who has always been very active in community endeavors throughout his career, including this past June when he hosted the 10th annual Brian Savage Charity Golf Classic, which has raised over $450,000 to help underprivileged children through the Ten Rainbows Children's Foundation in Sudbury. "My life may have been saved because I decided to get tested. I want to make sure people, including the players, know everything about this disease." 

"Losing someone you love is tragic," said John. "Knowing we can help make others aware is certainly comforting. 

CDHF thanks the NHL Alumni for sharing this story with us. www.nhlalumni.net

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