Hiccups, heartburn could be signs of esophageal cancer, daughter warns

Seneca Ottey (l) was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in August 2010. He died just past the one year mark (Source: Michelle Urban)
Seneca Ottey (l) was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in August 2010. He died just past the one year mark (Source: Michelle Urban)


Seneca Ottey always wanted to own a Dodge Challenger.  Forced into the fast lane at 60, he bought one. Ottey was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer, so he needed to get on the stick with his bucket list. 

"My father was diagnosed in August of 2010," Ottey's daughter, Michelle Urban says." He was given 9 to 12 months to live and sadly passed away just over the one-year mark. He was only 60 years old." 

Urban says her father was showing signs of the disease but didn't know it. 

"He did have some hiccupping and burping after eating but nothing really significant and he kind of brushed it aside as nothing." 

The hiccups continued for Ottey so he mentioned it to his doctor at his annual checkup. His doctor ordered an endoscopy. 

"And that's when it was diagnosed that he had a 3 cm size tumor on his esophagus and lymph node involvement," Urban says. 

Urban, who works in the medical profession says she had no idea until it hit close to home that hiccups and heartburn could be signs of esophageal cancer. 

 "I'm a pharmacist and even I didn't know much about esophageal cancer until I had to deal with it with my father," she says. "When patients come into the pharmacy we want to help them as best we can so when they complain of acid reflux, we walk over to the counter, we show them the over-the-counter Prilosec, the Zantac to give them that quick fix. Really they're only intended for a couple uses at a time and really no more than one course for four months." 

Other symptoms of esophageal cancer include: 

  • Pain with swallowing 
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Sudden weight loss 
  • Coughing 
  • Vomiting 

Esophageal cancer is rare, accounting for only one percent of all cancers, but it is as deadly as it is rare. The five-year survival rate is only about 18 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. 

Urban says while her dad was given a poor prognosis, he underwent 25 rounds of radiation treatments to buy more time. His tumor did shrink to 2 cm, and he appeared to be doing well. 

Urban bought her dad tickets to a Mets game so he could see his favorite major league baseball team play. And he bought that dream car. 

"He was doing amazing. He felt good, his hair was coming back he looked great and we were like 'yeah, he's beating this he's doing good' and a matter of time later he was gone." 

Ottey went into the hospital for hernia surgery, unrelated to his cancer. He would never come out. 

"It was in the middle of Hurricane Irene so it was a crazy, crazy weekend time," Urban recalls. From there he fell into a coma and he never recovered. The doctors there saw where he had brain metastases where the cancer had spread to his brain. At that point, there was nothing they could do to help him."  

There was nothing Urban could do either. The pharmacist knew there were no miracle drugs to save her dad. Since his death, however, she is on a mission to save other lives by educating people about the warning signs often masked as hiccups and heartburn.

This summer, July 7, Urban is coordinating a fundraiser on the campus of UNCW in memory of her dad. It's called Casino Night, complete with a Las Vegas atmosphere.  For information on tickets, click here.

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