Late last year, President Obama learned that the sore throat he had suffered with for several weeks was caused by reflux disease. It was the first time that this seemingly harmless condition made headline news. We hope Americans were paying attention. More than a decade ago, my husband Monte began to cough and choke as he lay down to sleep at night. At the time, we had no idea his symptoms were a sign of reflux disease. Perhaps if we had, my husband would be alive today.
After years of nighttime choking, Monte began feeling pressure in his chest when he swallowed. Exactly eight years ago this month, his doctors discovered a 6 cm tumor in his esophagus and he was diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer (EC). After eight weeks of punishing chemoradiation therapy, Monte’s surgeon removed his esophagus, pulled up his stomach and reattached it to the little bit of the esophagus that was left. And then we prayed. But less than three months after his surgery, we discovered that the cancer had spread throughout his body. Monte lost his battle less than a year after he was diagnosed. Our daughters were just 9 and 12.
Angry doesn’t begin to describe the way I felt when I realized that our two young daughters would lose their father and I would be robbed of my husband by a preventable disease that was caused by something we thought was so insignificant! We could not understand how it was possible that nobody had ever told us that reflux disease could kill you - or even how to tell if you had that potentially deadly condition.
Fighting for Change
That’s why, with the support of an amazing group of physicians, business leaders and families affected by esophageal cancer, we founded the Esophageal Cancer Action Network (ECAN) in 2009 with the goal of preventing other families from experiencing the heartbreak we have known (find out more at www.ecan.org).
One of the first things ECAN accomplished was the establishment of April as Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month. That makes this month a great time for you to learn about the risks caused by reflux disease and how you can protect yourself and your loved ones from facing the tragedy know by my family and an increasing number of Americans every year.
The number of new cases of esophageal cancer diagnosed in the U.S. has increased 600 percent since the 1970s. Nobody is certain what has caused this explosion in EC. But there is a clear a link to reflux disease and a progression to esophageal cancer.
What Is Reflux Disease?
In reflux disease, also called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), stomach contents, including stomach acid, back up into the esophagus and sometimes all the way up to the throat – causing symptoms like sore throat, hoarse voice, cough, choking and, of course, heartburn.
How Can Reflux Disease Lead to Cancer?
Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is caused by changes in the lining of the esophagus caused by constant exposure to reflux. Even when medication relieves symptoms, these potentially deadly changes can continue. In fact, some heartburn symptoms will disappear on their own, even as the reflux continues, because the esophagus gets so used to the reflux that it no longer causes discomfort. And the actual changes to the esophageal lining happen without causing any symptoms at all. So the disease is usually only discovered after it advances and causes tumors large enough to interfere with swallowing.
Because most patients are diagnosed at these late stages, when treatment is rarely successful, Esophageal Cancer is one of the deadliest of diseases, with fewer than one in five patients surviving more than five years.
You Can Stop Cancer Before it Starts
The type of Esophageal Cancer triggered by reflux disease is often preceded by a condition caused by persistent reflux, known as Barrett’s Esophagus, where the lining of the esophagus begins to look more like the lining of the stomach. This pre-cancerous condition affects about 11.5 million American adults every year, and many have no idea they have it. Left untreated, Barrett's esophagus can increase one’s risk of developing cancer by 50 times or more!
Like early stages of Esophageal Cancer, Barrett’s Esophagus has no symptoms. That’s why it’s so important for symptoms of reflux disease to be taken seriously. Sometimes they are the only warning signs cancer patients receive before it’s too late to save their lives. The only way to detect Barrett’s esophagus is with an examination of the esophagus. Early detection does save lives.
That’s because innovative new outpatient procedures can now treat precancerous Barrett’s Esophagus so that patients can avoid ever developing cancer. Using methods that can freeze, cut or use radiofrequency waves, these new approaches can eliminate the problematic cells before they become cancer. You can find out more at www.treatbarretts.com.
When to Take Action
Esophageal Cancer affects men three to four times more often than women and most frequently affects men over the age of 50.Even though the disease is more prevalent in men over 50, nobody can safely ignore their symptoms. Young men and women, even teenagers, have faced this deadly disease, often discovering it too late to save their lives.
So if you or a loved one have a sore throat, hoarse voice, cough or choking that is persistent but you can’t explain, persistent heartburn or a family history of Barrett’s Esophagus or esophageal cancer, please see a healthcare provider and ask about getting checked. Fortunately, most people with reflux disease won’t develop esophageal cancer. But we don’t have a good way to tell if you will be one of the lucky ones. And if you are among those whose esophagus responds to reflux with cancerous or precancerous changes, catching it early could save your life.