April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month. Esophageal cancer can be difficult to detect at an early stage. Possible symptoms of esophageal cancer include heartburn and Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as chronic acid reflux. People with GERD may have a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer in their lifetime.
The cause of esophageal cancer is unknown. Esophageal cancer occurs when the cells in your esophagus develop mutations, or errors, in their DNA. These errors make cells grow and divide out of control. The accumulating abnormal cells form a tumor in the esophagus that can grow and invade nearby structures, spreading to other parts of the body.
- Work on losing weight. Obesity leads to hiatus hernia and reflux which are in turn responsible for the increasing rates of esophageal cancer. Talk to your family physician about developing a plan to lose weight by eating well and exercising regularly.
- Don’t lie down after eating. For those with acid reflux, the valve between the esophagus and the stomach doesn’t function properly, allowing the contents of the stomach to back up into the esophagus. Lying down can make this problem worse, leading to late-night heartburn. Be sure to eat early to give your stomach time to empty before bedtime.
- Sleep with your head elevated. Lying down can exacerbate reflux disease. If you have reflux, consider taking action to make sure that your head and upper chest are elevated while you sleep. Stomach acid, like water, does not roll uphill.
- Take an antacid. Neutralize stomach acid before it backs up into the esophagus with antacids.
- Talk to your doctor. If you have a long history of severe heartburn or acid indigestion, talk to your doctor about Barrett’s esophagus, which increases your risk of developing cancer. Even if your acid reflux symptoms are controlled, you still could be at risk. The only way to diagnose Barrett’s is with an endoscopy and biopsy.