April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month and today we’re focusing on a common risk factor for the disease: gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or chronic acid reflux. GERD occurs when acid from the stomach splashes up into the esophagus. The acid irritates the lining of the esophagus, causing inflammation and symptoms such as heartburn, chest pain, regurgitation, sore throat or hoarseness, dry cough, persistent hiccups and trouble swallowing.
Chronic GERD can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition that develops when stomach acid erodes the lining of the esophagus over time. It causes tough, acid-resistant cells that are more prone to becoming cancerous to replace normal, healthy cells in the esophagus. Approximately 1 out of 1,000 patients with Barrett’s esophagus develop esophageal cancer each year.
The good news is there may be a simple way to reduce the risk of esophageal cancer. Researchers at Rhode Island Hospital published a study linking a pathway to Barrett’s esophagus and the development of esophageal cancer. The researchers believe blocking the pathway with a proton pump inhibitor (a medication which reduces stomach acid) may prevent esophageal cancer from developing. Common proton pump inhibitors include omeprazole (Prilosec®), esomeprazole (Nexium®) and lansoprazole (Prevacid®).
If you are experiencing heartburn and other acid reflux symptoms regularly, see your doctor. He or she may prescribe medication for acid reflux. Some of these medications have shown an association with vitamin deficiencies and osteoporosis in studies, so you'll need to weigh the risks and benefits. For long-term, severe cases of acid reflux, surgery to tighten the valve between the stomach and esophagus may be recommended.
In addition to medication, Dr. Amer Alkhatib, a gastroenterologist at our Tulsa hospital, recommends healthy lifestyle choices to help reduce risk:
- Maintain a healthy weight: Extra belly weight can push the stomach upward and trigger acid reflex, so maintaining a healthy weight is crucial.
- Choose healthier foods: Eating right and avoiding fried and fatty foods, caffeine and alcohol help reduce symptoms.
- Eliminate or cut back on acidic foods: Foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits, spicy foods and chocolate are common heartburn offenders.
- Eat with moderation: Eating smaller meals and having your last meal several hours before bedtime are also a good idea.
Learn about esophageal cancer and treatments for the disease.