Harmon Killebrew Plans to “Outslug” Esophageal Cancer

Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew is known as a home-run slugger. The 74-year-old Minnesota Twins player, nicknamed “Killer” and “Hammerin’ Harmon” hit 573 home runs and made 11 All-Star appearances during his 22-year career. Thursday, the Minnesota Twins announced that Killebrew is battling esophageal cancer. He currently lives in the Phoenix area and is attending a local branch of the Mayo Clinic. Killebrew is optimistic about his chances:

“The Mayo Clinic is one of the largest and most experienced medical centers treating esophageal cancer in the world. In the past decade, they have made tremendous advances in the treatment of this disease. Nita and I feel blessed to have access to the best doctors and medical care.”

The esophagus is the muscular tube, anatomically located behind your wind pipe or trachea, throw which food and drink passes between the mouth and the stomach. It’s actually your esophagus, and not your heart, when you experience “heart burn” which is caused by stomach acids leaking backward into your esophagus damaging its lining and causing pain.

The two most common forms of esophageal cancer are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancerous):

Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that forms in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the esophagus. This cancer is most often found in the upper and middle part of the esophagus, but can occur anywhere along the esophagus. This is sometimes called epidermoid carcinoma.

Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in glandular (secretory) cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the esophagus produce and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas usually form in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach.

Risk factors include the following:

  • Tobacco use.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Barrett esophagus: A condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have changed or been replaced with abnormal cells that could lead to cancer of the esophagus. Gastric reflux (the backing up of stomach contents into the lower section of the esophagus) may irritate the esophagus and, over time, cause Barrett esophagus.
  • Older age.
  • Being male.
  • Being African-American.

The most common signs of esophageal cancer are painful or difficult swallowing and weight loss. These and other symptoms may be caused by esophageal cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Painful or difficult swallowing.
  • Weight loss.
  • Pain behind the breastbone.
  • Hoarseness and cough.
  • Indigestion and heartburn

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the esophagus, involves the whole esophagus, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The patient’s general health.

Treatment for esophageal cancer typically consists of a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.

For more information, go to the Resounding Health CaseBook™ on the topic.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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