Esophageal Cancer (EC) is one of the fastest growing cancers by incidence, and is one of the most deadly cancers in the US. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 17,000 new cases of esophageal cancer will be diagnosed in 2016. A large potion of those cases will be Adenocarcinoma, a type of esophageal cancer linked specifically to GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease).
GERD is more than just Heartburn
GERD is a chronic, often progressive disease resulting from a weak lower esophageal sphincter that allows harmful gastric fluid to reflux into the esophagus, resulting in both pain and injury to the esophageal lining. Symptoms of GERD include heartburn and regurgitation, often associated with chronic sleep disruption, and may also include persistent cough, excessive throat clearing, hoarseness and a feeling of a “lump” in the throat. Acid reflux medications, such as Prevacid®, Nexium®, and Prilosec®, affect gastric acid production, but do not repair the sphincter defect, allowing continued reflux.
GERD can lead to Cancer
What many people don’t know is that, in many cases, GERD can lead to cancer. Patients with chronic GERD can develop a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. An estimated 15% of chronic reflux patients also have Barrett’s esophagus – a condition caused when digestive acid backs up from the stomach into the esophagus, causing damage and the growth of pre-cancerous cells. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than three million people in the U.S. have Barrett’s esophagus. When left untreated, patients with Barrett's esophagus have a 40x greater risk in developing adenocarcinoma, an aggressive form of cancer that is often fatal.
The most common symptom of esophageal cancer is a problem swallowing, with a feeling like food is stuck in the throat or chest, or even choking on food. This is often mild when it starts, and gradually worsens over time as the opening inside the esophagus gets narrower. Additional symptoms can include; weight loss without trying, chest pain, pressure or burning, worsening indigestion or heartburn, coughing or hoarseness, and bleeding in the esophagus.
Get Educated. Get Evaluated. Get Treated.
Esophageal cancer is a very real thing, and unfortunately if you’re a patient with GERD it is something you should keep on your radar. Being educated and informed about the potential risks can go a long way towards prevention and early detection. If you experience GERD symptoms more than twice a week, or continue to have symptoms and/or develop new or worsening symptoms while on medication, consult your physician about the risks of GERD and available treatment options. Your physician can discuss tests available to diagnose GERD including; endoscopy, pH testing, manometry and barium esophagram.