Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), a risk factor of esophageal cancer, is also known as “acid reflux disease” or “chronic heartburn.” GERD occurs when stomach acids flow backwards into the esophagus.
The culprit? Your lower esophageal sphincter (LES).
The LES is a ring of muscle that open to allow food and drink to pass into the stomach from the mouth.
A normal functioning LES then closes to keep those contents inside the stomach to allow for digestion. When the LES is damaged, it becomes weak and relaxes, allowing stomach acids and contents to flow back up into the esophagus. This “reflux” symptom is known as heartburn.
While not all GERD sufferers experience this symptom (heartburn), people who do suffer from heartburn more than twice a week should speak with their doctor.
It has not been clearly established what causes the LES to become damaged. However, doctors have indicated that pressure on the midsection caused by obesity, frequently eating large meals and hiatal hernia can damage this important muscle.
Overtime, the 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. However, Barrett’s esophagus isn’t the only precursor to esophageal cancer.
There are no standard or routine screenings to detect esophageal cancer in its earlier stages, when the tumors can be better treated. Unfortunately, symptoms such as difficulty swallowing and food getting stuck typically appear once the cancer has spread. When esophageal cancer is diagnosed at later stages, there is a poor survival rate, as treatment options are limited and mostly used to treat cancer symptoms, not towards curing the cancer. Stage IV has a survival rate of only 3.8%. The earlier esophageal cancer is detected, the better chances for survival.
It is imperative that patients suffering from chronic and frequent heartburn be proactive and talk to their doctor. For some, lifestyle changes can help to alleviate GERD symptoms. Others may need to take medications (Please read the label on the bottle! Most medications are recommended to be taken no longer than for 8 to 12 weeks.) Some patients may be candidates for nonsurgical, less invasive options to treat GERD.
It is extremely important that patients speak to with their doctor about tests to screen for esophageal cancer. Remember, early detection saves lives! Feel free to share this information with your family and friends. We’ve included social media buttons below to make sharing simple.
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—Sources: Cancer.gov Cancer.org RefluxMD.com