The chemotherapy has difficult side effects, and the radiation causes a burning sensation that makes it difficult to swallow. “Food won’t go down,” Ms. Mordecai said. “You just feel rotten.”
The next step is major surgery. A doctor takes out most of the patient’s esophagus, the tract leading from the mouth to the stomach, and then grabs the stomach and pulls it up, attaching it to a stump of esophagus left behind.
The result is a stomach that is vertical, not horizontal, and lacks the sphincter muscle that normally keeps stomach acid from spilling out. For the rest of their lives, patients can never lie flat — if they do, the contents of their stomach, including acid, pours into their throats. They can choke, cough and aspirate.
Recovery is difficult, and morbidity and mortality are high. But most patients go through with the operation once they weigh their options. To refuse the treatment means giving up and letting the cancer close off the esophagus to the point where some cannot even swallow their own saliva, said Dr. Paul Helft, a professor of surgery and an ethicist at Indiana University School of Medicine.
The treatment is so long and harrowing that Dr. Helft often uses it to teach medical students and other trainees about informed consent — about how patients must be fully informed before they start any given treatment. Esophageal cancer patients in particular must be told that they are likely to have a recurrence within the first year.
Ms. Mordecai said her husband had his surgery at the end of September 2008. By Dec. 6, he had untreatable metastases in his liver. Now, she said, patients may have a glimmer of hope.
Dr. Ilson, who has spent his career trying to develop therapies to help patients with esophageal cancer, said that he did not expect this treatment to succeed: “We all get nihilistic when faced with years of negative studies.”
“This is really a landmark paper,” he added, and the drug “will become a new standard of care.”