Cancer survivor beats the odds against esophageal cancer – three times

Shirley Berdan has beat esophagus cancer three times.

She is hoping the third time is the charm – her life depends on it.

Berdan first discovered she had cancer 11 years ago when she had trouble swallowing her food.

A biopsy confirmed that the lesions in her throat were cancerous and she underwent an operation to remove three-fourths of her esophagus.

Life went back to normal for a while, she said, but then three years later another malignant tumor was found.

"They said it (the tumor) was too close to my voice box to remove, so my doctors recommended chemotherapy and radiation treatments instead," Berdan said.

"It was a long process."

After 15 radiation treatments Berdan started on chemotherapy, which she received from Wednesday through Friday.

On Friday she took a chemo drip system home with her to use all weekend to be removed on Sunday.

After about three and a half months the tumor was gone, she said.

Again life returned to normal and Berdan returned to her job at a Laughlin casino.

But fate intervened once again, and two years later she developed another cancerous tumor, this time on the left side of her neck, along with a malignant lymph node and saliva gland.

"It was a lot worse that time," she said.

"I had a lot of pain in my throat."

Again Berdan underwent radiation treatments – 37 this time – which permanently dried out her saliva gland.

After the radiation treatments she started chemotherapy shots.

But she had a bad reaction, and ended up with a low red blood cell count and her immune system "shot," she said.

She ended up in the intensive care unit of the hospital for 10 days, fighting for her life, as she was kept alive with intravenous feedings.

For the first time during her long struggle with cancer Berdan said she lost her hair and a lot of her weight – shrinking to 90 pounds.

She doesn't know what caused her cancer, but said she was a smoker before she developed the first tumor.

Berdan promised herself that if she survived the last bout with cancer she would help others get through the same ordeal.

She is a volunteer with the Kingman Cancer Care Unit, a group of volunteers that dedicate themselves to helping Kingman cancer patients.

"They helped me when I needed someone, now I want to help them," she said.

She takes cancer patients to doctor's appointments and helps cancer patients who lose their hair to pick out a wig free of charge from the KCCU, as she once did; and attends a KCCU support group that meets the second Tuesday of every month at the Del E.

Webb Wellness & Rehabilitation Center.

The next meeting, at 2 p.m.

Aug.

14, will include a guest speaker – a nutritionist or pharmacist.

"Some people don't like to talk about it because they do not want to admit, even to themselves, that they have cancer.

It is difficult, and they think they are the only ones that have it," Berdan said.

"I know, because that is what I used to think.

"But it is important to talk to others," she added.

"It is not something you want to go through alone."

Esophageal cancer starts in the muscular tube – the esophagus - that connects the throat to the stomach.

This tube allows food to enter the stomach for digestion, and is about 10 to 13 inches long, according to a definition from the American Cancer Society.

The society estimates that there will be about 12,200 new cases of esophageal cancer in 2001 and that about 12,500 people will die of the disease.

A Kingman oncologist, who did not wish to be identified, said that esophageal cancer is rising in occurrence and can be treated in several different ways.

The American Cancer Society lists risk factors for esophageal cancer to be: age, with men and women between the ages of 45 to 70 at greatest risk; sex, with men three times more likely than women to develop the disease; and race, with African Americans three times more likely than whites to have cancer of the esophagus.

Controllable risk factors include: tobacco use, with persons who smoke, and with those who smoke for longer periods at greater risk; and alcohol, with long term heavy drinking a major risk factor.

For people who both smoke and drink, the risk is further increased, according the society.

Another risk factor, referred to as Barrett's esophagus, occurs because of continued reflux of fluid from the stomach into the lower esophagus.

Over time this reflux changes the cells at the end of the esophagus, according to the American Cancer Society.

Berdan also experienced reflux, which she said caused lesions in her throat.

Berdan is still dealing with the affects of the cancer.

It has taken her five long years to gain back the weight she lost, and every six to seven months she must have her esophagus dilated so she does not choke of her food.

"I still live day by day," she said.