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UVa Doctors: Heartburn Can Cause Cancer

By: Matt Holmes Email
By: Matt Holmes Email

Wednesday April 2, 2008

Doctors say cancer of the esophagus is the fastest growing malignancy in America. The key to avoiding disease could be as simple as making some basic changes to your diet.

"The thing that causes esophageal cancer isn't the [acid] reflux or the heartburn," explains UVa thoracic surgeon Dr. Christine Lau, "it's the damage that it causes to the lining of the esophagus."

Eating especially spicy foods, drinking too much coffee, even just being pregnant or obese can all trigger acid reflux, which eats away at the lining of the esophagus. That leaves cells more vulnerable to a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus; doctors say once you develop Barrett's, there's no going back.

"Once you develop Barrett's, you have Barrett's," Lau says. "Once you have this changing in the lining of your esophagus, that doesn't really change by taking the anti-acid medication."

It's a problem that's on the rise.

Barrett's cases are up as around 3 million patients suffer from eroded esophagi. This year 16,470 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer, a disease that only has a 17 percent five-year survival rate.

If you suffer from acid reflux, Dr. Lau's best advice to keep yourself out of trouble: "If you're over 40, you ought to be seeing your doctor and you ought to be considering getting an endoscopy done for it, which is where you look for the Barrett's."

She says those who don't consult their physician often end up needing an esophagectomy.

"You take the esophagus out and you usually use the stomach to replace it and pull the stomach up into the chest and reconnect it to the proximal esophagus."

She adds simply popping a couple Rolaids isn't enough. Even if your heartburn has come and gone the damage could be done. In that case she recommends you get to your doctor as soon as possible.

For more information on the prevalence of esophageal cancer and treatments of the disease, visit http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/esophageal/.

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