WINFIELD – For many years, Dan Given suffered from chronic heartburn.
His son, Brian, remembers times when he would go through a large bottle of Rolaids during the course of a week in search of relief.
But then Dan's symptoms disappeared, and for about the last 20 years, his recurring heartburn was gone.
What the Given family didn't know was that Dan had developed Barrett's Esophagus, which is caused when stomach acid damages the lining of the esophagus, making it resemble the stomach's interior. Those with Barrett's Esophagus are at a greater risk of developing esophageal cancer, but they don't realize it because to them, it just seems like their heartburn is gone.
In January, Dan was diagnosed with this type of cancer after hip pain led to the discovery of a tumor in his hip. Tumors were found throughout his body, and although he underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments, he died in April at age 64.
"He said, 'Make my life count for something even more so that other people don't die like I did,'" said his wife, Jo. The two would have celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary in September.
Now, the Given family is on a mission to spread the word about how chronic heartburn can cause cancer, something they say many people don't realize.
"People know sunburn causes cancer," Jo said. "People don't know heartburn causes it."
The family and their friends will host a booth at the DuPage County Fair from Wednesday through Sunday at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton to share information and answer questions about esophageal cancer.
Their informational materials come from the Esophageal Cancer Action Network, a Baltimore-based organization started by Mindy Mintz Mordecai in 2009, after her own husband died from the disease.
While esophageal cancer is a rare type of cancer, most of those diagnosed with it will die, Mintz Mordecai said.
"It's a devastating diease," she said.
The network's goal is to raise awareness and research for esophageal cancer. The only way for people to know if they have Barrett's Esophagus or esophageal cancer is to get screened, and that's what the organization tells people with chronic heartburn to do.
"We really think the best tool we have right now is public awareness," Mintz Mordecai said.
But what qualifies as chronic heartburn?
Those who experience more than an episode or two of heartburn each week need to talk to their doctor immediately, said Gary Chmielewski, associate professor of surgery in the Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery at Rush University Medical Center.
Esophageal cancer is a research focus for Chmielewski, whose own father died from the cancer.
Patients seen by the doctor range from those who have acid reflux to those who have developed Barrett's Esophagus or esophageal cancer.
In some cases, there are ways to treat Barrett's Esophagus, but in others, the condition can only be monitored to make sure it does not worsen, according to the Esophageal Cancer Action Network.
If the cancer is found in its early stages, it can likely be cured. But in most cases, it's not found until it's too late.
Chmielewski said the big thing is to spread the word, which he does by participating in speaking tours with the network, sharing informational pamphlets at his office, and more.
But there are many doctors, too, who don't realize chronic heartburn can lead to cancer, he said.
Jo Given wonders if someone had known to tell her husband to have his esophagus screened back when his heartburn went away, maybe things would be different now.
But all Jo and her two kids, Morgan, 26, and Brian, 24, can do is try to create a different future for other families.
"We're hoping just to at least touch a couple people, so hopefully this won't affect them the same way it's affected us," Brian said.
Visit the booth
The Givens will be at the DuPage County Fair from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
How to help
Visit www.ecan.org to learn more about efforts to increase awareness and research for esophageal cancer.