Nearly 15 million Americans experience heartburn on a daily basis. If you fall into that category, you may think that heartburn is nothing more than a post-meal annoyance. But did you know that chronic heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can lead to esophageal cancer? April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, which is a great time to get proactive about putting a stop to your heartburn!
Acid reflux occurs when digestive fluid from the stomach creeps back into the esophagus. This digestive fluid, known as gastric acid, causes the burning sensation in the chest associated with heartburn. It can also lead to cellular changes in the esophagus, which may eventually develop into cancer.
The esophagus is naturally lined with skin-like cells. Chronic acid reflux damages these cells, causing them to change and become more acid-resistant, similar to cells found in the stomach and intestine. This condition is known as Barrett’s esophagus, and it increases your risk of esophageal cancer 30- to 125-fold (Source: Esophageal Cancer Action Network).
Esophageal cancer is considered one of the deadliest forms of cancer, due to the fact that early diagnosis is both rare and difficult. Esophageal cancer rarely produces symptoms in its early stages, meaning that the cancer has usually developed into advanced stages before being detected. As esophageal cancer progresses, symptoms may include:
- Difficult or painful swallowing
- Weight loss
- Blood in the stool
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling very tired
- Heartburn (GERD)
- Pain in the throat or back
- Hoarseness or coughing (Source: Esophageal Cancer Awareness Association)
If you experience symptoms of esophageal cancer or suffer from acid reflux two or more times a week, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your doctor. It may be necessary to make some lifestyle changes or consider a treatment plan to manage heartburn episodes. Losing excess weight, limiting alcohol and giving up smoking can drastically reduce your risk of esophageal cancer. Antacids and PPIs can be used to control acid reflux, which in turn can lower your risk as well. By being well-informed and managing heartburn, you can help prevent esophageal cancer and become a great advocate for your own health!