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When Ronald’s Acid Reflux Got Bad, He Didn’t Ignore This Esophageal Cancer Symptom

Ronald at a doctor's appointment. He had one of the esophageal cancer symptoms

A couple of years ago, Ronald Preston’s acid reflux got really bad. At night, he’d even wake up choking on swallowed food. He did the right thing. He went to his doctor and got a prescription antacid. But even more importantly, he and his doctor agreed they should take a look down his throat.

That was a lifesaving call. Ronald’s bad acid reflux turned out to be esophageal cancer.

Acid reflux is one of the main esophageal cancer symptoms. This type of cancer is on the rise. More than 17,600 men and 4,600 women will be diagnosed with it in 2024, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s most often found in men over 50. Ronald was 58 when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Cancer affects you in all ways of life ... emotionally, physically, spiritually. And it gives you a very positive outlook on life for a simple reason: There’s always somebody in worse shape than you.

Ronald Preston

Don’t Ignore Esophageal Cancer Symptoms

Do you have trouble swallowing? This is the most common esophageal cancer symptom. You might feel like food gets stuck in your chest. Some people even choke on food. Other things can cause this. But when it’s caused by cancer, these symptoms get worse over time. Eventually, it even hurts to swallow.

Three other common esophageal cancer symptoms are:

Chronic heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

GERD isn’t just a symptom. It can also lead to esophageal cancer. So it’s important to treat this condition. Over decades, the stomach acid that washes up can wear away the lining of the esophagus. This erosion can lead to cancer in rare cases.

Chest pain a few seconds after swallowing

This happens when food or liquid reaches the site of the tumor (mass) in the esophagus.

Hoarse, scratchy voice or a cough that doesn’t go away 

Even a sore throat is a rare esophageal cancer symptom. If you have any ongoing swallowing or throat issues, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about ruling out esophageal cancer. The sooner the better.

Catching Cancer When It’s Treatable

Cancer runs in Ronald’s family. Three of his sisters and his oldest brother have all had different types of cancer. Ronald's father died of esophageal cancer. It was found after spreading throughout his body. This is stage 4.

But Ronald’s cancer was caught at stage 3. He has a better prognosis because he reached out to his doctor when he developed esophageal cancer symptoms. Cancer experts have lots of ways to help him fight a stage 3 cancer.

Ronald Needed 4 Types of Cancer Treatment

Cancer experts at UVA Health collaborated with Lynchburg cancer experts closer to Ronald’s home in Bedford, Virginia. This gave Ronald excellent cancer treatment that fit into his life. Ronald works at a factory that makes medical, aerospace and auto parts. He kept working throughout several weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatment. He only took time off from work for surgery.

In February 2022, Ronald came to UVA Health to have his esophagus removed. Known as an esophagectomy, this is a complex surgery. But UVA Health has much success with it and does more than anyone else in Virginia.

“We do about 40 esophagectomies each year. Our patients recover faster because we do these as minimally invasive as possible. And we’re always looking for ways to help our patients avoid complications like infections after surgery,” says thoracic surgeon Christopher Scott, MD.

When It's Cancer

You'll want care from Virginia's first comprehensive cancer center.

Scott removed part of Ronald’s esophagus with the help of a surgical robot. Ronald couldn’t eat for a week after the surgery to allow the remaining esophagus to heal. But he’s had no problems swallowing since. And he no longer suffers from acid reflux.

“It sounds remarkable. But you can live just fine after removing part of your esophagus,” Dr. Scott says.

Esophageal Cancer Symptoms Gone, Now ‘Hoping for the Best’

As part of his cancer treatment, Ronald also needed to take hormone therapy for a year.

Throughout his battle with esophageal cancer, Ronald’s maintained an incredible attitude.

“Cancer affects you in all ways of life,” he shares. “It affects you emotionally, physically, spiritually. And it gives you a very positive outlook on life for a simple reason: There’s always somebody in worse shape than you.”

He isn’t out of the woods yet. An MRI image recently uncovered a spot near his throat. He’ll need more tests to determine if it’s cancer. “It’s in a lymph node. I’m preparing myself for the worst but I'm hoping for the best,” he shares.

“I'm the youngest of 11. I've been fighting my whole life. And this is just another fight that I got to win.”

Watch Ronald Tell His Story

In the video below, watch Ronald and Dr. Scott talk about Ronald's esophageal cancer diagnosis and treatment, surgery, and recovery at UVA Health.

View Transcript

RONALD PRESTON: My name's Ronald Preston. Just turned 60 years old. I was born in Bedford, Virginia. I've lived here all my life, and it's a wonderful place to live.

KAREN STEPTOE: I've known Ronald for 43 years. Ronald is a very good man. He can tell a joke in a minute. He keeps me laughing.

RONALD: My first symptoms was like a heartburn, and they got worse and worse. So I went to my family physician and, "Could you direct me to some place to have this checked out?" He ran the scope down my throat and took a biopsy. And then when it come back, I found out that I had small cell cancer.

KAREN: I was just so heartbroken. Because, you know, you first heard the word cancer, you think the worst.

RONALD: So I decided to fight. So they sent me up to UVA and that's where I met Dr. Scott and his team.

CHRISTOPHER SCOTT, MD: When Ronald was first referred to me approximately 2 years ago, he had what I estimated as stage 2 or early stage 3 esophageal cancer. We know from very robust literature that his best survival is in a 3-part therapy: chemotherapy, radiation, followed by surgery. After he fully completed the chemotherapy and radiation, we performed Ronald's esophagectomy with the use of the surgical robot. This allowed us to do the operation in a minimally invasive manner. That means instead of a large, conventional, open incision on the abdomen and the chest, we were able to make several smaller incisions and use a camera to be able to do the surgery.

RONALD: In a way, I did have some worries about it, because that's the first time I've ever been in a major surgery like that.

KAREN: I felt a whole lot better when Dr. Scott came out to say that everything went well and now we're going to go forward, you know, to the healing process.

CHRISTOPHER SCOTT, MD: Ronald's recovery went remarkably well. He was discharged home in seven days from the hospital. He came back to see me on a routine post-operative visit two weeks after his surgery, and at that point, he was off of all of his pain medication. He was driving, running errands, and eating a soft diet without any issue whatsoever.

RONALD: I just had a CT scan, and for us, we're now home cancer-free. I'm looking to have a good cancer-free life for me and my girlfriend, to live together and ride off into the sunset.

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