Father's fight with esophageal cancer inspires daughter

| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 1:28 p.m.

Jackie Smith remembers her father suffering from heartburn for most of her life.

Emanuel F. Smith always kept a bottle of Mylanta on his nightstand, but in 2000, he found out that his ailment was more serious than chronic heartburn, said Jackie Smith, 31, of Summer Hill.

Her father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and underwent the removal of his esophagus, and radiation and chemotherapy treatments. In 2002, the cancer returned.

Emanuel F. Smith lost his battle with the disease at age 52 in 2004, she said.

“It's just a horrible, horrible disease to watch someone you love die from,” said Smith, a neurosurgical physician's assistant in Lawrenceville-based Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Many people are unaware of the link between heartburn and esophageal cancer or the disease's low survival rate, so Smith set out to change that by talking to a representative from the Esophageal Cancer Action Network, a Stevenson, Md.-based nonprofit, in July.

That led to a partnership between the action network and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The library's East Liberty branch will host a free awareness event, “Taking Steps to Save Lives: Because Heartburn Can Cause Cancer,” for the public on Tuesday.

The Esophageal Cancer Action Network partners with libraries all over the country to host awareness events, but next week's session at the East Liberty branch will be the network's first in Pittsburgh, said Mindy Mintz Mordecai, president and chief executive officer of the network.

Dr. Blair Jobe, director of West Penn Allegheny Health System's Institute for the Treatment of Esophageal and Thoracic Disease, will lead the discussion at the East Liberty library branch.

“One of the thrusts of the Institute for the Treatment of Esophageal and Thoracic Disease … is to better understand the risks of the disease, with a focus on early detection,” said Jobe, who also is chair of Western Pennsylvania Hospital's surgery department.

Emanuel F. Smith, a longtime volunteer coach with the Carlynton Little Cougars youth football team, died from adenocarcinoma, which, according to the Scottsdale-based Mayo Clinic, is the most common of the two main types of esophageal cancer in the United States, and it primarily affects white men.

Risk factors can cause chronic irritation of the esophagus that may contribute to DNA changes that cause esophageal cancer, the Mayo Clinic said. Such risk factors include gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, commonly called chronic heartburn or reflux.

Other risk factors are drinking alcohol, chewing tobacco, obesity and smoking, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The survival rate at least five years after treatment ranges from 3 percent for distant esophageal cancer, which means the cancer spread to organs or lymph nodes away from the tumor, to 38 percent for localized cancer, which means the cancer grew only in the esophagus, according to the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society.

Mordecai founded the Esophageal Cancer Action Network in 2009 as a result of her husband dying of adenocarcinoma in 2008, she said.

“And I thought, how many more families are going to have to look at their kids and say, ‘Sorry, Daddy's not going to be here?' ” Mordecai said.

She points to the organization's successes, such as its establishment of Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, which more than half of all states recognized last year.

The group also was part of a successful lobby of the National Cancer Institute to include esophageal cancer in its genome mapping project, known as The Cancer Genome Atlas, about two years ago.

The East Liberty event, as well as those at libraries in Baltimore County, Md., and York, will kick off a campaign highlighting GERD Awareness Week, which is the week of Thanksgiving.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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