April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month and in 2019, 17,650 new esophageal cancer cases were diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society.
Doctors in Dallas said they've seen an increase in esophageal cancer rates, possibly because of the nationwide increase in obesity.
They said obesity can lead to chronic acid reflux, a risk factor for esophageal cancer.
For a Tarrant County mother diagnosed at age 34, years of acid reflux problems contributed to her cancer, according to doctors.
Cindy Henderson said she suffered from acid reflux problems ever since her teenage years but never thought anything of it.
"I had acid reflux before, more so when I was pregnant, but still moderate when I wasn't and I didn't pay much attention to it because I dealt with it most my life. So I was like, 'oh I will take some Tums, I'll be fine," she said.
She said her acid reflux problems progressed last year, while she was pregnant with the family's sixth child, to the point to where she wasn't able to eat or drink.
Tragically, she had a stillbirth at 26 weeks, unrelated to the acid reflux, however, she said that the loss of her baby prompted her to get her symptoms checked out.
Cindy's husband Tov said they were shocked to learn she had a tumor in her esophagus.
"The last thing you expect is the doctor to come out and tell you, 'by the way, there's a mass in her esophagus that could be cancer.' That's something you don't expect to see to happen to your 34-year-old wife," said Tov.
Luckily, they said, doctors said the cancer was in stage two and easily treatable.
Doctors said had Cindy waited any longer, the outcome might have been different.
"That was my son's purpose. My son's purpose was to save me. You can't ask for a better life than that," said Cindy.
Esophageal cancer has few, if any, signs or symptoms in its early stages.
Most people do not have symptoms until the tumor blocks the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow.
"Even a small tumor, like one centimeter, can essentially block the esophagus and then you have trouble swallowing," said surgical oncologist Dr. Suhail Sharif at Medical City Fort Worth.
Dr. Sharif said patients with reflux disease can develop esophageal cancer down the road, sometimes after 15 to 20 years of constant reflux problems.
Cindy Henderson developed reflux disease in her teens, putting her at risk for esophageal cancer in her thirties.
"We have a false sense of hope that cancers usually happen to patients in their 60s and 70s. Unfortunately, we do see a rise in patients in younger populations that are developing more serious cancers. The key thing here is education," said Dr. Sharif.
Doctors said the tumor had nothing to do with Henderson's stillbirth, while the family said their loss saved Cindy's life.