Millions of Americans suffer from heartburn each year. Unfortunately, many of those Americans are experiencing chronic heartburn, which occurs more than twice a week. Heartburn is one of the most common symptoms of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. This disease is known more commonly as GERD and is a major risk factor for esophageal cancer.
Heartburn is often ignored, disregarded and poorly managed. Many heartburn suffers try to self-medicate through the use of antacids or acid reducing medications. Typically, these medications do not work long-term for those whose heartburn symptoms caused by GERD.
GERD affects almost 1/3 of all Americans and is the most expensive gastrointestinal disorder in the United States, with direct and indirect costs totaling approximately $10 billion dollars each year.
The National Cancer Institute defines GERD as the backward flow of stomach acid contents into the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach). It is also known as esophageal reflux and gastric reflux.
This back flow is caused by a weakened lower esophageal sphincter, which is a ring of muscle that opens and closes the opening between the esophagus and the stomach. The LES can’t contain the stomach contents from entering back up into the esophagus.
Overtime, this reflux of stomach acids damages the lining of the esophageal wall and can cause the cells to become abnormal and potentially lead to esophageal cancer. This change in the cells, which line the lower part of the esophageal wall, is known as Barrett’s esophagus, a sometimes precancerous condition.
Taking medications, whether they are over-the-counter or prescribed by a doctor, does not repair the LES. These medications only treat the symptoms of the disease while the damage can continue to occur. Also, these medications are intended for temporary relief and are not to be taken for an extended period of time.
As we mentioned, GERD is one of the risks associated with esophageal cancer, along with other factors, such as being overweight or Barrett’s esophagus. Having one of these risk factors does not mean that cancer will result. However, having one of these risk factors and not being proactive can significantly further the risk of esophageal cancer.
The earlier esophageal cancer is detected, the better. Unfortunately, there are currently no standard or routine screenings to detect esophageal cancer in its earliest stages.
It is imperative that patients suffering from chronic and frequent heartburn to be proactive. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes to help reduce GERD symptoms. Also, discuss the various tests used to detect esophageal cancer. Click here for more information regarding methods used to detect esophageal cancer.
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Sources: refluxmd.com cancer.gov iffgd.org