A Family’s Valiant Battle against Esophageal Cancer Met with Community Warmth

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From left: Maya Mordecai, John “Monte” Mordecai, Mindy Mintz Mordecai and Mara Mordecai (Provided)
From left: Maya Mordecai, John “Monte” Mordecai, Mindy Mintz Mordecai and Mara Mordecai (Provided)

Mindy Mintz Mordecai has enjoyed successful careers in investigative journalism and litigation and now runs a nonprofit. But her main motivation stems from her passion to serve the community. When her husband of 14 years was diagnosed with stage III esophageal cancer, the community repaid her service, when, she said, they “wrapped their arms around [my family] and really kept [us] safe.”

The Esophageal Cancer  Action Network, of which  Indiana native Mintz Mordecai, 57, is president and CEO, will host Charm City Celebrity Game Night on April 9, and it’s one way in which she serves her community.


The event features Baltimore television and radio personalities competing in live game shows for the Jerry Turner Trophy, named after the longtime WJZ-TV news anchor who passed away from esophageal cancer in 1987 at the age of 57.

The organization’s message: Heartburn can cause cancer — more specifically, esophageal cancer, a disease that took Mintz Mordecai, her husband John “Monte” Mordecai and their two daughters, Mara and Maya, on a long journey.

In 2007, Mordecai complained of a pressure in his chest. Mintz Mordecai, having been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly called GERD, years before, suggested that was the cause of the pressure.

One night, Mordecai, in what Mintz Mordecai described as “the most horrifying experience of my life,” bent over and “started honking like a goose.” After visiting a doctor, he was referred to a specialist.

It might not be cancer, but it’s definitely abnormal, and someone should seek  medical attention if they  suddenly have trouble  swallowing. — Dr. Mark Katlic, chief of the department of surgery  and surgeon-in-chief at Sinai Hospital

 

“The doctor said there’s a  lesion,” Mordecai told Mintz Mordecai. “I’m going to see David in the morning,” referring to a family friend who is also a gastroenterologist.

“I knew if my husband had an appointment with David the very next day, that was not good news,” said Mintz Mordecai. “Because it usually took months to get an  appointment.”

Dr. Mark Katlic, chief of the department of surgery and surgeon-in-chief at Sinai Hospital, explained that GERD can cause heartburn.

“The contents of the stomach come up into the esophagus and the lower part of the esophagus gets bathed by acid from the stomach, [which] can sometimes hurt. That’s heartburn,” said Katlic, who  specializes in several types of cancers including esophageal.

Having occasional heartburn, Katlic added, is not a sign of cancer “but if you have [heartburn] day in and day out for year after year, you’re the person who is potentially at-risk.”

The gastroenterologist that Mordecai visited quickly identified the lesion as cancerous.

“This is just going to make our family stronger,” Mordecai said.

“If it doesn’t make our family smaller, I’ll be OK with that,” replied Mintz Mordecai.

After enduring a brutal regiment of chemotherapy, radiation treatment and a  surgery in September 2007 to remove most of his esophagus, things began to look up, as Mordecai had avoided many of the issues other patients face after going through similar surgeries. However, the good fortune didn’t last when he began experiencing severe hip pains.

“We went to the ER and they did an MRI,” said Mintz Mordecai. “[It was] sciatica and also lesions on [his] pelvis, lungs, ribs and liver. It was a nightmare, and our children had just turned 9 and 12.”

During all of this, their daughter, Mara, was preparing for her bat mitzvah at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. Because Mordecai was raised Episcopalian, when Mara would get called up for an aliyah, the school would use Mintz Mordecai’s Hebrew name  followed by “ve Monte.” However, Mara knew it was  unlikely the synagogue would do that during a Shabbat service. After hearing this concern, Mordecai began studying with Rabbi Ronald Shulman for his conversion. When Shulman heard about the diagnosis, he rabbi made a decision that forced Mintz Mordecai to begin confronting an unpleasant reality.

“I think we should do the conversion now,” the rabbi told the family.

“And you know when that happens, he’s doing that  because he wants to make sure [my husband] can be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” said Mintz Mordecai. “But I couldn’t go there; I couldn’t think like that.”

Mordecai completed his conversion, and Mara had her bat mitzvah on Aug. 13, her father’s birthday, in 2008, and Maya would follow suit having her bat mitzvah in 2011 on the same date.

During this time, Mintz Mordecai was researching the disease in an effort to learn anything and everything that could potentially save her husband’s life. This led her to Dr. Jaffer Ajani, a leading expert in the field of esophageal cancer.

“I’m always amazed by the way she grasps things, the amount of information thrown at her about medical [jargon and laws],” said Lois Stern, who along with her  husband, Ken, is chairing the game-night event.

Mintz Mordecai asked Ajani’s opinion on what chemotherapy/radiation regiment he would pursue, but her husband’s doctor declined the  advice when she offered it.

Mordecai was due to begin more chemotherapy/radiation in late December, but the  hospital told him it had to be canceled. The orders had not been signed, and the hospital, according to Mintz Mordecai, refused to contact the doctor who was on vacation.

Desperate, Mintz Mordecai called an oncologist at Johns Hopkins, who just weeks  earlier the family decided to stop seeing. Mintz Mordecai explained what was happening, and the doctor agreed to arrange the orders.

“I gave [the Hopkins doctor] the regiment, and she  [approved it],” said Mintz Mordecai. “So he was able to start chemo on New Year’s Eve.”

Mintz Mordecai said the parents at Krieger Schechter Day School did everything in their power to help when they found out what Mintz Mordecai’s family was going through, from providing rides for the girls to delivering meals.

“We discovered a lot about ourselves and the people around us through this experience,” said Mintz Mordecai.

In January 2008, the news she feared ultimately surfaced.

“There’s nothing more we can do,” the doctor told them during an office visit.

“The first thing my husband did was look at me and say, ‘I’m so sorry,’” said Mintz Mordecai. “He looked at the doctor and said, ‘It must be terribly hard for you to have tell patients this news.’”

In his last few months, she asked Mordecai if he had any regrets to which he replied no and added that his goal in life was to make others feel better about themselves. Mintz Mordecai said that legacy lives on through their daughter, Maya, who has always had a knack for knowing when someone is having an off  day and how to make them  feel better.

John “Monte” Mordecai passed away on March 27, 2008 at age 63.

“[Esophageal cancer] is particularly dangerous because it isn’t detected [early],” said Katlic, a doctor from Sinai Hospital. “It might not be cancer, but it’s definitely abnormal and someone should seek medical attention if they suddenly have trouble swallowing.”

Educating the public is a big part of ECAN’s message.

“We’re not trying to cure the disease,” said Stern. “We’re  trying to get enough people to know how to catch it ahead of time.”

[email protected]

—Justin Katz


Charm City Celebrity Game Night
Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel
700 Aliceanna St.
April 9, 7 p.m.
Tickets are $125 for the main event; $200 with VIP reception.
For more information, visit charmcitycelebritygamenight.org or call 410-358-3226.

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