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By Cash Michaels
Because of poor diets, heavy drinking, smoking, and chronic acid reflux, more African-Americans than whites proportionately suffer and die from esophageal (or throat) cancer in this country every year.
But the deadly disease can also strike what seems to be a perfectly healthy man.
Dr. Alice Garrett knows. Her beloved husband, Bobby, died of it in December 2008.
He had walked religiously for exercise for years, and had stopped smoking twenty-years earlier. There was the occasional acid reflux, which Garrett went to his doctor to have treated.
But when he lost his voice introducing his son as church one day, Garrett knew something was wrong. Garrett says her husband’s cancer started in the throat area, but spread throughout his neck. He lived with it for eleven years before he died.
Once her husband was diagnosed in 1997 (doctors told Bobby Garrett that the cancer had been dormant in him for 25 years), caring for him became the Garrett family’s center of their universe, making sure that Bobby Garrett was not alone through the ordeal.
Part of that process had Dr. Garrett and her children immediately partner with the
the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Research Center in Chapel Hill, to ensure that her husband received the best care and treatment.
Indeed, when Garrett saw how many people, and how much effort on the part of the Lineberger doctors and staff to treat her husband and others, she felt compelled to find an effective way to give back to the cause of fighting the disease.
“I wanted to help others, and make sure that the community was made better aware of this cancer that is considered a “silent killer,” Dr. Garrett told The Carolinian.
Esophageal Cancer is a cancerous malignant tumor of the esophagus, the muscular tube that moves food from the mouth to the stomach.
Black men are more likely, scientific research has determined, than any other group, including women, to contract and die from the disease. Black woman are, however, growing in percentages.
On average, patients live five years after being initially being diagnosed.
If caught early, esophageal cancer can be treated. But in an estimated 70 percent of the cases, by the time it is diagnosed, the disease is in its late stages. As with most cancers, it is then too late to effectively implement treatment.
As the cancerous tumor grows in the throat, symptoms include difficulty swallowing causing pain and discomfort while eating; the sensation of food being consistently stuck in your throat; sudden weight loss; pain in the throat or chest; hoarseness or cough.
In 2005, Dutch researchers studying the epidemiology of the disease in the United States, noted in The Journal of Clinical Oncology that a survey of Medicare records for over 3000 elderly patients with esophageal cancer determined that black were 50 percent less likely to have life-prolonging surgery for it, or even consulting a surgeon, than whites, thus increasing the likelihood of death.
Bobby Garrett got the best treatment possible at the Lineberger Center, Dr. Alice Garrett says, noting that the staff and doctors were extraordinary caring, and always involved the family in any crucial decisions that had to be made.
Even when it was clear that there wasn’t anything left to be done that would definitively prolong Bobby Garrett’s life, the Lineberger staff went the extra mile to make sure that his family was with him when his time came.
For the past 3 years in December, Garrett and her family have sponsored the Bobby F. Garrett Esophageal Cancer Benefit Gospel Concert at St. Matthew AME Church in Raleigh to both raise awareness of the deadly disease, and funds in the African-American community to help the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Research Center find a cure.
“Esophagus Cancer is the least funded cancer of all known cancers in the United States,” Dr. Garrett says. “In our communities we often give to benefits and participate in groups but rarely do we step out and start something that can be identified within our communities. Our giving is most often couched under the umbrella of well established organizations and benefits.”
The Garretts also make time to speak to churches and civic groups about the cancer, sharing their personal experiences and passing out informative literature. They also mail out hundreds of solicitation letters, seeking donations.
They make sure to tell people not to take things like sore throats and acid reflex for granted.
If there is “good news” in all of this, it’s that the mortality rates for African-Americans due to esophageal cancer have been going down for the past 20 years, even though they are still higher than for whites, according to the National Cancer Institute.
People are surviving what was once a sure killer. But the research continues, and Dr. Garrett says thus, more funding is needed.
Even though the next benefit concert won’t be until next December, the Garrett family’s awareness and fundraising efforts are year-round. The Lineberger Center has established a special website at http://garrettconcert.kintera.org that contains both the latest information on care and treatments, as well as accept online donations.
Checks with tax deductible donations for the cause may also be sent to “Garrett Benefit,” 1607 East Martin St. Raleigh, NC 27610. Please write Garrett Benefit on the memo line.
All proceeds from the Garrett benefit efforts go to the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill, which has partnered with the Garrett family.
To contribute time to help further educate the community about esophageal cancer, please contact Dr. Alice Garrett at firstname.lastname@example.org