Most people experience occasional heartburn. But when heartburn is severe or occurs frequently over an extended period of time, it is called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD. Over time, untreated GERD damages the lining of the esophagus. As a result, one in 10 people with GERD develop Barrett's esophagus, a potentially dangerous change in the lining of the esophagus. Barrett's esophagus occurs when acid-resistant cells, similar to those found in the stomach and intestinal lining, grow in the esophagus.
"Many patients with Barrett's esophagus experience no symptoms," said Dr. Luis Pea, UK College of Medicine Assistant Professor, Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition. "It is important to go to your doctor, if you are experiencing persistent or severe heartburn. If acid reflux is controlled, you may not develop Barrett's esophagus."
Preventing Barrett's esophagus could be a matter of life or death: Those with Barrett's esophagus may be 30 times more likely than the average person to develop esophageal cancer. Survival rates for the nation's fastest growing cancer are staggering: Only 16 percent survive five years after diagnosis. The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 14,000 will die from esophageal cancer this year.
It is standard to monitor Barrett's esophagus for dysplasia, or abnormal cell changes, through endoscopy. During an endoscopy, the patient is sedated and a thin, lighted tube is inserted down the throat, allowing the doctor to examine the lining of the esophagus for abnormalities and to biopsy, or collect tissue samples for testing. In patients with high-grade dysplasia, 20 percent may develop cancer. Thus, serious measures must be taken.