Man holding neck and chest area because of heartburn

CARE

When heartburn may be more than just a pain

Just about everyone has experienced heartburn, that burning sensation in your chest caused by eating one too many burritos or imbibing one too many beers especially before bedtime. But long-term, chronic heartburn may be a symptom of something more serious than overindulging. It may be a symptom of chronic gastric reflux, which can increase your risk for esophageal cancer.

The esophagus is the food pipe that leads from your throat to your stomach. When you eat, food travels through your esophagus to your stomach where gastric fluids, including strong stomach acid, are released to continue digestion. Sometimes this acid can leak up into the esophagus, which is called gastric reflux. The acid can burn the lining of the esophagus causing heartburn. For most of us, an occasional bout of heartburn is an annoyance easily treated by over-the-counter antacids. But those who have chronic heartburn, called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, are at higher risk of developing Barrett's esophagus. In this condition, the acid reflux causes changes to the cells lining the esophagus and increases the risk of esophageal cancer.

Although esophageal cancer is rare, it is particularly dangerous. About 17,650 people, mostly men, will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer each year in the United States and about 16,080 people will die from it. It is the seventh most common cause of cancer death among American men.

Factors that increase your risk of developing esophagus cancer are:

  • male (men are 3.5 times more likely to develop esophagus cancer than women)
  • age (fewer than 15 percent of cases are under age 55)
  • heartburn symptoms for five or more years
  • obesity
  • tobacco and alcohol consumption
  • Barrett’s esophagus
  • family history of esophagus cancer

If you experience any of the following symptoms, please see your doctor:

  • heartburn more than three to four times a week
  • recurrent heartburn over time
  • difficulty swallowing (a feeling like food is stuck in your chest), especially solid foods like meat or bread
  • unintentional weight loss

WHAT YOU CAN DO

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