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Reflux Can Raise Your Cancer Risk


Periodic heartburn can be irritating, but frequent heartburn can significantly impact the quality of a person’s life.

And along with disturbing sleep and keeping individuals from enjoying some of their favorite foods, frequent heartburn can even increase one’s risk of developing cancer.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, affects about 20 percent of the American population, according to the National Institution of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. It’s commonly diagnosed among people who experience acid reflux two or more times a week for weeks at a time.

Reflux occurs when the acid from your stomach washes up into your esophagus — the “pipe” that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. This usually happens when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) — the band of muscle at the top of the stomach — becomes weakened or impaired so that it cannot close completely, allowing the acid to escape the stomach. Some people just naturally have a weak LES, while others may find their LES is impaired because of a hiatal hernia. Other conditions that put pressure on the LES, including being pregnant or obese, can also lead to acid reflux.

Since the cells of the esophagus are not made to be exposed to stomach acid (like, say, the cells lining the stomach or the intestines), being constantly awash in stomach acid can cause the burning sensation so common with GERD and, over time, can actually cause those cells to change, leading to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. The American Gastroenterological Association estimates that more than 3 million Americans are living with Barrett’s esophagus.

With Barrett’s esophagus, the cells lining the esophagus become tougher and more resistant to acid, mimicking the cells already present in the small intestine. Research has shown that these cells are fundamentally different on a genetic level, with shorter ends to their DNA strands. The Esophageal Cancer Action Network (ECAN) estimates that patients with Barrett’s esophagus have an up to 125-fold increased risk for developing esophageal cancer.

(Interestingly, up until about 20 years ago, the most common form of esophageal cancer diagnosed in the United States was squamous cancer, which arose from the squamous mucosa that normally lines the esophagus. Over the past two decades, however, the rate of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus — the type of cancer preceded by Barrett’s esophagus — has increased more than 350 percent and now represents the form of esophageal cancer found in up to 90 percent of all patients.)

The good news is, most people with Barrett’s esophagus do not develop esophageal cancer — and, with advances in screening and diagnostic techniques, we can detect instances of Barrett’s esophagus sooner and more closely monitor it so we can diagnose esophageal cancer in its earliest stages, when treatment is most successful.

Modern treatments — like the innovative LINX Reflux Management System available at Tanner — also allow us to reduce the risk for developing Barrett’s esophagus — and even reverse it, giving the esophagus time to heal by relieving the symptoms of GERD. But the first step in addressing the symptoms and lowering your risk is to discuss the symptoms with your healthcare provider.

You can also find relief by contacting Tanner Health System’s unique Tanner Heartburn Treatment Center at 770-812-2025. The Tanner Heartburn Treatment Center will provide you with a registered nurse navigator to answer questions and guide you through diagnostic and treatment options, as well as provide you with access to a board-certified gastroenterology specialist who can provide advanced treatment and relief for acid reflux symptoms, as well as monitor you for the signs of Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal cancer.

Learn more about Tanner’s unique approach to diagnosing and treating chronic heartburn at TannerHeartburnCare.org.

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