The Rising Threat of Esophageal Cancer: "When Heartburn May be Something More"

Northwestern Medicine
Gastroenterology March 14, 2017
Srinadh Komanduri, MD, gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial HospitalTreating heartburn with over-the-counter medicines provides short-term relief, but if the symptoms persist it can cause more harm than good. Heartburn has the ability to mimic more serious conditions such as acid reflux and GERD. Acid reflux is a common medical condition that can range in severity from mild to serious. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the chronic, more severe form of acid reflux. Heartburn is a symptom of both. Most often, your doctor will be able to identify whether you have heartburn or GERD by doing specific tests.

Srinadh Komanduri, MD, gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital answered the following frequently asked questions:

What is GERD? GERD is an acronym for gastroesophageal reflux disease. This refers to contents on the stomach moving up into the esophagus and resulting in bothersome symptoms such as heartburn.

How common is chronic heartburn? 60 million Americans experience heartburn each year and 15 million have these symptoms on a daily basis. As such, this is very common and is often dismissed as a part of normal everyday life.

What are common symptoms of GERD? While the most common symptom of GERD is heartburn, the disease can manifest in many different forms. These range from regurgitation of food, chest pain, difficulty swallowing and even chronic hoarseness or cough.

What are treatment options for GERD? GERD can be treated with simple lifestyle modifications such as avoid trigger foods (e.g. red sauce, caffeine) or medications (e.g. proton pump inhibitors). In some circumstances surgery may be required to repair the underlying anatomical cause of reflux.

If left untreated how serious can GERD become?
The most concerning aspect of uncontrolled GERD is the development of Barrett’s Esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus is change in the lining of the esophagus due to long standing reflux, which is the precursor for esophageal cancer. As such, it is imperative to educate our public that chronic heartburn should be taken seriously and brought to the attention of your physician.

Is there a procedure to stop Barrett’s from turning into esophageal cancer? For the patients who are found to have Barrett’s esophagus we are fortunate to have effective endoscopic treatments. Both endoscopic resection and radiofrequency ablation have proven to be safe, effective, and durable in curing Barrett’s esophagus.

What sets the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital apart?
The program at Northwestern Memorial is a unique multidisciplinary center of excellence which encompassed physicians with expertise in GERD, Barrett’s and Esophageal cancer to ensure optimal care and the highest level of innovation to our patients. Our outcomes for treating GERD and Barrett’s esophagus are second to none. We currently have many specialized clinics and clinical trials for patients with GERD or Barrett’s esophagus to ensure that we continue to be on the cutting edge.

Learn more about the Digestive Health Center or schedule an appointment by calling 312.695.5620.