While the overall death rates from several cancers such as breast and lung have gone down, there has been a meteoric rise in cases of esophageal cancer. Studies have shown that from 1975 to 2001, the incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma rose approximately sixfold in the United States (from four to 23 cases per million), a relative increase greater than that for melanoma, breast, or prostate cancer.
Silent and deadly, this cancer has gained a solid foothold partly because public awareness about how the disease develops and can be prevented isn't well known. Once diagnosed with esophageal cancer, the survival rate is low so early intervention is critical, says UCLA experts.
"Obesity and poor diet have spiked the numbers suffering from acid reflux that can lead to Barrett's esophagus, a condition that increases the risk for developing a specific type of esophageal cancer," said Dr. V. Raman Muthusamy, associate clinical professor of medicine, director of interventional endoscopy, and endoscopy director of the UCLA Center for Esophageal Disorders.
Over time, stomach acid that is abnormally washing into the esophagus due to acid reflux disease, heartburn and GERD may cause changes in the tissue lining of the esophagus called Barrett's esophagus. Those with Barrett's may be up to 30-40 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer. People may not feel any symptoms other than heartburn as the disease progresses.
"Early identification, treatment and management of changes in the esophageal lining are critical to catching problems early," said Dr. Kevin Ghassemi, clinical programs director, UCLA Center for Esophageal Diseases.
Everyone experiences heartburn once in awhile, so when should you be concerned?
UCLA experts offer the following tips to help reduce the risks associated with acid reflux disease:
1)Occasional heart burn is okay. But, if you suffer from it one or more times a week, you may want to see your doctor or gastroenterologist about managing it.
2)Maintain a healthy weight. Experts have found that being overweight can exacerbate acid reflux and heartburn.
3)Don't overeat. Symptoms can be aggravated if you are overly full. Also, don't lie down immediately after eating since that can also cause stomach acid to reflux into the esophagus. Consider light exercise after eating such as taking a walk which can help aid digestion.
4)Remember to take your medications. If you have been prescribed medications for acid reflux such as proton pump inhibitors (Prilosec, Nexium, Prevacid, Protonix etc), or histamine-2 receptor antagonists (Zantac, Pepcid etc), make sure to take them regularly to ensure a consistently lower stomach acid level so there will be less chance of acid reflux.
5)Get screened. If you're a Caucasian male age 50 or older and have suffered from frequent acid reflux for more than 10-15 years, guidelines from the American College of Gastroenterology suggest it may be reasonable to consider screening for Barrett's Esophagus. If caught early, changes in the esophagus lining can be effectively managed and treated.
7)Caffeine, fatty foods, and alcohol can lower the resting pressure of the muscle connecting the entrance of the esophagus into the stomach, increasing the chance of developing reflux.
8)Certain heart and blood pressure medicines such as calcium channel blockers and nitrates can lower the pressure of the lower esophageal sphincter, making reflux more likely. If you are on these medications, consider discussing with your doctor the possibility of using other classes of medications that don't affect this muscle.
9)Wear loose-fitting clothes.