Barrett's Esophagus and Cancer: Are They Linked?

Acid reflux can happen to anyone. An overindulgent dinner, stress, lying down immediately after eating a large meal — these can all cause acid from your stomach to push back up into your esophagus. 

If it happens frequently (two or more times per week), you may have acid reflux disease or the more severe version, gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD).

When stomach acid rises, it causes a painful sensation in your chest commonly known as heartburn. Although it has nothing to do with your heart, the burning part is accurate. 

Each time the acid comes into contact with your esophagus, it damages the lining and eventually changes the cells in the tissue. This is called Barrett’s esophagus.

Here at Rockland Thoracic & Vascular Associates in Pomona, New York, our team of experienced specialists take Barrett’s esophagus very seriously, because the complications can be severe. 

Barrett’s esophagus explained

Your esophagus is the long tube between your throat and your stomach that transports food from your mouth. 

Because your stomach contains caustic acids necessary for digesting your food, there’s a sphincter where your lower esophagus meets your stomach. It closes tightly after food passes down to prevent the backflow of that caustic acid. 

Several factors can put you at risk of acid pushing up past the lower esophageal sphincter, like how and what you eat and drink, being overweight, and smoking. There are also some physical conditions that can cause GERD, including achalasia, where the muscles in your esophagus don’t work properly. 

Regardless of what’s causing your acid reflux, the constant wash of chemicals can lead to Barrett’s esophagus.

Common signs of Barrett’s esophagus include:

Surprisingly, about half of the people who suffer from Barrett’s esophagus have none of these symptoms. Because this condition can be silent, you should monitor your esophageal health with regular screenings, especially since Barrett’s esophagus may be a precursor to cancer.

Esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer is relatively rare. It ranks 18th on the list of common cancers and only accounts for about 1% of new cancer cases each year. In 2020, there were 18,400 people diagnosed with esophageal cancer, but 16,170 died from it. 

The risk factors for esophageal cancer include:

Having Barrett’s esophagus isn’t a guarantee you’ll get cancer, but it does increase your chances. The damage to your esophagus lining alters the cells, and those altered cells are the basis of all cancers. 

There are two types of esophageal cancer defined by the specific cells they attack:

Squamous cell carcinoma

Although this type of cancer can occur anywhere along the length of your esophagus, it most commonly appears in the middle and upper portions. It happens when the flat cells in the lining of your esophagus become cancerous.

Adenocarcinoma

Another type of cell, called glandular, is responsible for secreting mucus in your esophagus. When cancer attacks these cells, it’s called adenocarcinoma, and it typically appears in the lower esophagus near your stomach.

Treating Barrett’s esophagus

If you have Barrett’s esophagus, we monitor you closely and track any changes in your tissues. We treat your GERD and educate you about lifestyle changes that can slow or stop the progression of your condition.

If we detect precancerous cells (dysplasia) in the area, we may suggest radiofrequency ablation, which uses laser energy to gently heat the affected tissues and destroy them so your body can naturally eliminate them.

If the esophageal lining has been damaged, we may perform a mucosal resection to remove the damaged tissue.

Treating esophageal cancer

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Having Barrett’s esophagus does NOT mean you’ll get cancer. 

Only about 1 in every 200 (0.5%) cases of Barrett’s esophagus progress to cancer. In the rare instance you become one of them, we treat your cancer with the most advanced technology, years of experience, and the utmost care. 

Often, esophageal cancer calls for radiation and chemotherapy. If and when surgery is prudent, we use minimally invasive techniques that cause less pain and promote faster recovery times. 

If you have Barrett’s esophagus, we can treat your condition and help you avoid its progression into cancer. 

Early diagnosis and treatment are key to esophageal health, so contact us at Rockland Thoracic & Vascular Associates in Pomona, New York, by phone or online today to get screened for Barrett’s esophagus.

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