Heartburn Left Untreated Can Increase Your Risk for Esophageal Cancer

New research confirms untreated heartburn may increase one's risk for esophageal cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012 about 17,460 people will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer and about 15,070 people will lose their battle with it. It is three to four times more common among men than women. Previous years once indicated that was more common among African-Americans, but recently the rates have decreased in African-Americans and has to some extent increased among whites, however it is overall equally common in both races.

With the rise in obesity, Dr. V. Raman Muthusamy, associate clinical professor of medicine and endoscopy director at the UCLA Center for Esophageal Disorders, believes the amount of people suffering from acid reflux (heart burn). If left untreated the reflux of the stomach acid will continually wash into the esophagus, causing Barrett's esophagus, which is when the tissue lining has been altered. People who suffer from Barrett's esophagus are 40 times likely to develop esophageal cancer.

Individuals who may have esophageal cancer may only experience heartburn. Some may not be aware that something is wrong due to the lack of symptoms.  

Dr. Kevin Ghassemi, clinical programs director at the UCLA Center for Esophageal Disorders stated in a university press release, "Early identification, treatment and management of changes in the esophageal lining are critical to catching problems early."

Here are some helpful tips both Dr. Muthusamy and Dr. Ghassemi, believe that can either reduce your chances of heartburn or alert you to become concerned:

  • Anyone experiencing heartburn more than once a week should visit their doctor to manage the condition.
  • Lose extra pounds. Being overweight can make acid reflux and heartburn worse.
  • Avoid eating too much at one time, and keep upright after eating. Reclining with a full stomach can make symptoms worse.
  • Engage in light physical activity after eating; exercise can help digestion.
  • Anyone who takes medications for acid reflux -- such as Prilosec, Nexium, Prevacid, Zantac or Pepcid -- should take their medication regularly to reduce the level of acid in their stomach.
  •  Get screened for esophageal cancer. White men aged 50 or older who have been affected by acid reflux for more than 10 to 15 years should consider being screened for Barrett's esophagus. If caught early, the changes in the esophagus lining can be treated.
  •  Don't smoke.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and fatty foods, which can increase the risk for acid reflux.
  • People taking certain heart and blood-pressure drugs, such as calcium channel blockers and nitrates, may be at greater risk for acid reflux. These patients should discuss their risk factors and treatment options with their doctor.
  • Don't wear tight-fitting clothes. 
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