SELINSGROVE - One area woman uses a tragic event to spread awareness about a dangerous cancer that affects people with persistent heartburn.
In December 2010, Jennifer Nunamaker's husband, Nate, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
"He went through the entire process - chemotherapy, radiation." she said. "Eventually, the treatments didn't work. In June of last year, he passed away. My new goal in life is to make people aware of esophageal cancer."
It is not an easy task for her and others with a similar goal.
Esophageal cancer is the fastest growing cancer in the country and yet "most people don't even know it exists," Nunamaker said.
Two national organizations strive to raise awareness - the Esophageal Cancer Education Foundation and Esophageal Cancer Action Network. Nunamaker serves as an ambassador for the foundation, which helps her tell the community about the disease.
"It's just a new program that started recently," she said. "I wanted to spread the word a little bit. Most people don't about it, which surprises me."
In addition to telling people that the cancer has the highest increase in diagnosis counts, she also tells them one thing that can cause it - persistent heartburn.
When she hears people mention heartburn problems they have, she responds, " 'Don't say that to me.' "
For most people, heartburn is an occasional problem, but if it is persistent for years, it can cause the cancer. So when she hears someone has had heartburn for a long time, she recommends going to the doctor.
"I definitely do mention it to people," Nunamaker said. " 'Oh gosh, here we go. You're going to be sorry you said this to me.' I just give them the information and that's what they choose to do with it. I, at least, feel like I've done my part in sharing a little bit of my story with them."
Because her husband had persistent heartburn, she said she wonders that if he told his doctor, maybe they could have crushed the disease.
"My husband had that," she said. "We feel that's probably what was a contributing factor to his contract-
ing it. He had persistent heartburn his entire life."
Some people, however, find it difficult going to the doctor for something that seems harmless.
"The problem is, he's a guy," Nunamaker said. "He never went to the doctor. He went when he was younger. He was only 36 when he passed. Once he wasn't under his mom's control, he just thought, 'It's what I have and that's how my body works.' "
While having persistent heartburn does not mean esophageal cancer will result, mentioning it to the doctor is one way to find out.
"See how they want you to proceed," she said. "Sometimes people don't think it means anything. It's just the way their body works. Sometimes that's the case."
Another symptom of esophageal cancer is difficulty swallowing.
Smoking and heavy drinking also can cause the cancer. The same conditions in an overweight person increases the chances of developing the cancer.
Nunamaker hasn't given any speeches about the dangers of the cancer. She attended some of the awareness-raising events but, right now, she is focusing on making a local presence.
"I try to find other folks that may have been affected," she said.
Just a few weeks ago, during the area's Relay for Life, she found someone looking at cancer awareness bracelets, a periwinkle one for esophageal cancer. The woman told her that she had the cancer.
"It was kind of amazing to meet someone," Nunamaker said. "She had the surgery. She was surviving for several years. It normally just affects the men. It was amazing she was a woman."