Heartburn (which was once considered an annoying result of over-eating) has matured into a full-blown medical condition better known as gastro-esophageal reflux or GERD.
GERD, or the sensation of acid or other gastric fluids washing up into the chest or mouth, affects as many as 1 in 5 adults in the US on a monthly basis with up to 6% experiencing symptoms 2 or more times per week. Estimates suggest that about 5% of those who suffer from reflux will develop a potentially pre-malignant condition called Barrett’s esophagus (BE). Named after the British thoracic surgeon who erroneously suggested the condition resulted from a congenitally short esophagus, BE is characterized by “specialized intestinal lining” replacing normal squamous epithelium (ie, wet skin, like the lining of the mouth) in the lower esophagus in response to long-term, repetitive exposure to stomach acid.
While this may seem like a protective adaptation—Barrett’s tissue will not ulcerate and develop scarring the way squamous tissue does—it is inherently unstable and can progress to cancer. The risk for developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus for people with BE is more than 30 times greater than for people without it.
Luckily, the absolute risk of progression from BE to cancer is relatively low. BE progresses to esophageal cancer at the rate of around 0.2% per year. Further, cancer doesn’t usually develop suddenly. Instead, it progresses through a series of stages termed “dysplasia” meaning bad or unfavorable changes that can be identified on biopsies collected at endoscopy. These changes progress from...