“Oh, it’s just heartburn.”
How often have you heard someone say that or maybe even thought it yourself? The reality is that heartburn (also called acid reflux) is more than just annoying. Left untreated, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, symptoms can lead to esophageal cancer.
Let’s back up a step: Acid reflux, as most of us know, is that uncomfortable feeling that something you ate is coming back up. It can feel like a burning sensation—or even pain—behind the sternum. It happens when the contents in your stomach flow upward into the esophagus because the valve between the two organs doesn’t close properly.
If it happens often enough, you have what’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. An estimated 18 to 28 percent of adults in the United States experience frequent acid reflux—a condition that’s made worse by obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol use and a poor diet. More than half of all pregnant women also report severe heartburn, although it usually disappears after childbirth.
The real problem is that GERD symptoms can lead to cancer of the esophagus. About 50,000 people live with esophageal cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. There will be an estimated 16,940 new cases of esophageal cancer in the United States in 2017 and an estimated 15,690 deaths. Other than having GERD, risk factors for the disease include smoking, drinking alcohol and being obese.
Esophageal cancer occurs when GERD symptoms are left untreated which can, over time, cause a more serious condition known as Barrett’s esophagus, in which cells lining the lower part of the esophagus change or are replaced by abnormal cells. Those abnormal cells ultimately can become cancerous—and deadly.
Even worse, esophageal cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage because there may be no early signs or symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include difficulty swallowing, weight loss and indigestion.
A case of heartburn or acid reflux here or there is likely nothing to worry about. But if you begin experiencing it on a regular basis, it’s time to get help.
Luckily, most GERD symptoms can be managed with lifestyle modifications, such as avoiding large meals late in the day, quitting smoking, losing weight and cutting back on foods that trigger GERD. While these foods can be different for everyone, common culprits include acidic foods like citrus and tomatoes, spicy foods, chocolate, coffee and fried and fatty foods. It can also help to avoid lying down after eating, sleep in a slightly upright position and take a short walk after a meal.
For more information on GERD, and how it differs from acid reflux and heartburn, download our guide, Your Guide to GERD.