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Dinner dance to benefit Jeannotte Foundation for cancer research

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SHIRLEY – After Roy Jeannotte died of esophageal cancer in 2001, his family established a foundation and launched a charity golf tournament in his name.

In 2002 the foundation partnered with Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, which receives the proceeds and uses the money to fund research.

To date, the foundation’s efforts have raised $100,000 for the cause, according to Seth Jeannotte, Roy’s son.

”Our father touched a lot of lives. People have been very generous,” he said.

This year, the family has chosen a different fund-raiser — a gala dinner dance to be held on Friday, Nov. 4 at the new SpringHill Suites at Devens with cocktails being served at 6 p.m. and dinner at 8 with dancing after.

Seth credits the idea to his mother, Ann Marie, who served for many years on the auxiliary at the former Deaconess-Nashoba Hospital. There, she helped run fund-raisers, including a couple of dinner dances and a fashion show — successful high-end events that have not been repeated to the same extent as charity golf tournaments.

Thus the change of pace, but the aim is the same.

Also, Dr. Elizabeth Montgomery, a research physician at Johns Hopkins, will give a brief talk.

Music for the evening will be provided by the Peter Miles Band, of Burlington Vermont — the group that played at Seth and Allison Jeannotte’s wedding.

Roy and Ann Marie (Lorden) Jeannotte came from Pepperell and settled in Shirley in the 1970’s.

Seth is the oldest of their three children. He has two younger sisters. Elena works in the family business. Rachel is a medical aesthetician.

Seth and his wife, Allison, have a 2-year-old son, Ronan, born two years and one day after Roy Jeannotte died in Nov. 2001. The boy would never know his grandfather, but he was born at Emerson Hospital, where Roy was diagnosed with cancer and occupied a room just a floor removed from the one on which Ronan was born. Seth pointed out the irony.

”One of the saddest events in my life and one of the happiest … happened in the same place,” he said.

Those who knew Roy Jeannotte — that is to say, just about everybody linked to business, politics or civic activities in Shirley or Ayer over the last two decades or so — have noted Seth’s striking resemblance to his father: Athletic build and a direct, outgoing manner.

But the younger Jeannotte, who now heads R. L. Jeannotte Inc., the construction firm his father founded here in 1983, inherited another family trait a lot less to his liking: A propensity for heartburn they used to consider bothersome but benign. They know better now.

In a recent telephone interview, the younger Jeannotte said he and other family members have learned the condition can have serious effects, long-term.

”We walked around with Rolaids in our pockets,” he said. “Now we’ve changed our ways.”

Maybe, he said, it is stress related, but there are other factors, including diet, that can cause heartburn, or gastro-esophageal reflux.

Untreated, it can lead to Barrett’s esophageal disorder and, ultimately, esophageal cancer. This progression is not the only cause, he said, but it is detectable, treatable and probably preventable. Other contributing factors include caffeine and nicotine.

”My dad smoked for years.” He had quit, though, about a decade before he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He died nine months later.

Esophageal cancer is one of the fastest growing diagnoses in the country today and, in a way, that’s good news, but not if the diagnosis comes too late — as it did in Roy Jeannotte’s case.

Typically, Barrett’s is the result of heartburn, Seth Jeannotte said.

In the first phase, commonly known as heartburn, stomach acid containing cells from the stomach lining migrates up into the esophagus and melds with those other cells, which are structured differently. Cell mutation is where the cancer starts and where early detection comes in.

Part of the research at Johns Hopkins the Jeannotte foundation helps to fund is aimed at perfecting a blood test, similar to the so-called Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test, that would signal the presence of stomach cells in the esophagus before they mutate and cause cancer.

Meanwhile, there are secondary steps that can be taken.

The first is awareness. Knowing heartburn is potentially serious, Jeannotte said, people with persistent symptoms should see their primary care physician and, if necessary, a gastroenterologist who can scope the problem area and spot trouble such as gastro-esophageal reflux disorder (GERD).

Noting another irony, Jeannotte said his construction firm is now doing a project building new offices and procedure rooms for the Middlesex Gastroenterology group, which has locations at Nashoba Valley Medical Center, Emerson Hospital and in Acton.

”It is the same group that diagnosed my father,” he said.

As Jeannotte related his father’s story, ironies mounted. Nov. 11, 2001, for example.

”That date means a lot to people …” he said.

And it also has a different significance for his family. Ann Marie and Roy were vacationing in Florida at the time and couldn’t get home.

”They were stuck there,” he said. “When they got home, my father didn’t look well. He died two months later, the day after Thanksgiving.”

For a time, he had been relatively healthy. Treatment had consisted of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery — an esophageal resection that drew the stomach up further and surrounded the removed cancerous area with healthy tissue.

”He recovered well over the spring and summer, felt pretty good, played golf with us.” Jeannotte said.

The first signs his father had that the trouble was more than heartburn was difficulty swallowing.

”The muscles were constricted,” Jeannotte said.

The first endoscopy showed stretching that doctors sought to treat. A second test revealed a tumor.

Previously active and vigorous, some would say the picture of health, Roy Jeannotte was 53 years old when he died.

He left his wife, three children and a legacy of community service. A longtime member of the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce, he served on the board of directors. The organization has named one of its leadership awards for him.

Seth is also a member and now serves on the board.

Among other past activities, Roy Jeannotte was a former building inspector in Shirley and served on the town’s regionalization committee several years ago.

He also coached Pop Warner football and Little League baseball.

Tickets to Friday night’s event are $150 per person. Seth Jeannotte said there are also other sponsorship and donation options available.

For tickets or information, call Elena at R.L. Jeannotte Inc. at (978) 425-2333.