If you think of heartburn as a harmless nuisance, think again. Over time, the same acid that causes indigestion or acid reflux (also called GERD) can lead to esophageal cancer, a deadly disease that has become one of the fastest growing cancer diagnoses in the country and kills someone (men more than women) in America every 36 minutes.
The esophagus is the muscular tube that chewed food passes through on its way to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made of several layers and the cancer starts on the inside lining and spreads through the other layers as it grows. Because it is usually diagnosed late, less than 1 in 20 patients survive 5 years.
There are two types of esophageal cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma, usually caused by smoking and drinking alcohol and
- Adenocarcinoma, the most common type in the United States and usually caused by long term heartburn or acid reflux
Here’s How Heartburn Causes A Problem
Acid from the stomach exists to dissolve food. When it splashes up against the wall of the esophagus over a long period of time, it dissolves and “burns” the esophagus lining. In about 10% of people with heartburn, over time, the “burned” lining cells try to protect themselves by transforming into a different type of cell that is similar to the intestines and more “burn resistant.” Those changes lower the amount of pain, which is good. But they are also the early signs of a precancerous condition known as Barrett’s Esophagus. Unfortunately, only about one of 20 people know they have it. Of those people who get Barrett’s, about one in 100 of them develop a very aggressive cancer of the esophagus that otherwise happens to only one in 500 people.
The bad news: once you’ve got Barrett’s, it never heals on its own. The great news: gastroenterologists or endoscopic surgeons have new outpatient procedures by endoscopy and transnasal esophagoscopy that can diagnose and cure it the vast majority of the time. Early detection is key.
Who is at risk and should talk with their doctor?
People with a history of:
- Severe, persistent heartburn or acid reflux, even if it is controlled
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic cough, hoarseness or sore throat
Talk with you doctor. Stop your heartburn from being heartache.
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