Cancer of the esophagus is not very common, though it is growing in prevalence, and one woman is fighting to raise awareness in honor of her husband, who died of the disease. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.
The Rodriguez family never saw it coming.
"He was just a vibrant person. He was always happy," says Rubini Salva-Rodriguez, an esophageal cancer awareness associate. "He was the life of the party."
Henry Rodriguez died last year at the age of 51 of esophageal cancer.
"He had acid reflux for the longest time, for as long as I can remember, but he never told his doctor," Salva-Rodriguez says.
That's because Henry, like millions of Americans, was unaware of the connection between heartburn, acid reflux disease and cancer of the esophagus.
"Having that type of frequent reflux disease is what is related to the development of precancerous changes to the esophagus and of esophageal cancer," says Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman, director of the Weill Cornell Gastrointestinal Health Center.
Schnoll-Sussman says the prevalence of esophageal cancer is on the rise, especially among white men.
"Our diets have changed," Schnoll-Sussman says. "When we look at what people consume, fatty foods, eating late at night, working late and eating right before you go to bed, these are all risk factors for the development of reflux disease, and that is really the driving force behind these changes of the esophagus."
It's usually diagnosed in the late stages, when symptoms have already developed.
Salva-Rodriguez says before Henry was diagnosed, he started having problems swallowing food.
"Every morning he woke up, he would take Tums," she says. "It would take care of the symptom, the heartburn."
Part of the problem is that many Americans are self-medicating, using over-the-counter acid reflux drugs as a band aid.
"If you're someone that is always grabbing for that Rolaids, or they're on your bedside table at night, even though those modalities may help you feel a little bit better, they're probably a sign that something may be brewing in your esophagus," Schnoll-Sussman says.
Schnoll-Sussman urges heartburn sufferers to tell their doctor about their symptoms.
Henry's last request to his wife was for her to bring awareness to the connection between acid reflux and cancer of the esophagus.
"He hoped that his story would help others," Salva-Rodriguez says.
This April, 1,000 people participated in Henry's Hope, the first charity race for esophageal cancer.