Surprising case of esophageal cancer raises awareness of growing disease

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April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, and the deadly disease is rapidly on the rise.

Allina Health is home to one of the leading medical teams fighting the cancer. Recently, they treated one of their youngest patients who came in with some slight indigestion – and discovered he had a malignant tumor growing quickly.

Benjamin Neal, 25, had just landed at MSP Airport from a trip to Dallas and began heading home to northern Iowa when he became extremely nauseous.

“I got on I-35 and I think I made it two exits and we pulled over, and I ended up vomiting a good amount of blood,” Neal said.

The former football player and current firefighter was rushed to Allina Hospital where they started to run several tests.

“Everybody thought it was just going to be a little reflux or maybe an ulcer if he had been taking some ibuprofen, but lo and behold, it was a malignancy,” said Dr. Cassandra Anderson, one of the oncologists treating Neal for advanced esophageal cancer.

It's a disease commonly found in older men with histories of smoking and drinking--not in healthy 25-year-old men.

“They thought I had a food allergy, and I ended up having cancer,” Neal said. “It was a pretty big shock to everyone."

Within two weeks, Neal was undergoing chemotherapy and eventually surgery to have his entire esophagus removed.

Dr. Robert Ganz, a gastroenterologist at Allina Health who helped remove Neal's tumor, said esophageal cancer is “probably the most rapidly rising cancer in America today.”

One of the complications from Neal's surgery is his now smaller stomach, forcing him to re-adjust his eating habits.

“My stomach no longer has the ability to expand and contract; it’s essentially a tube," Neal said.

Eating smaller portions is tough for a 25-year-old, but he said it's a small price to pay if it means he might have a chance to beat this aggressive cancer. He hopes his diagnosis inspires others to listen to their bodies and seek medical attention when something feels off.

“You can’t think about tonight or tomorrow, you need to think about four months, five months because if you think about it on a day-to-day basis, it will eat you up.”

Because esophageal cancer is on the rise, recognizing your symptoms early is key to potentially beating the disease. If you are noticing persistent heartburn or indigestion, trouble swallowing or gurgling, check with your doctor.

Other ways to combat the cancer are to not smoke, to limit alcohol and to maintain a healthy diet.