Don't ignore chronic heartburn; it could raise your cancer risk

- At 43, David Johnson has spent his entire life living with heartburn.

"Even when I was a kid, I would wake up in the middle of the night, and have to sit up because the heartburn was just too aggressive, too hard," Johnson remembers. "And then, as an adult, it was all the time, to where I had to keep Rolaids in my pocket."

For 25 years, Johnson says he got by on a cocktail of over-the-counter antacids.

The medications would temporarily relieve that burning feeling, but then the symptoms would come back.

In his mid-30's Johnson finally went to the doctor.

Johnson was diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus, a serious complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD that, left untreated, could raise his risk of esophageal cancer.

The stomach acid that was backing up into his esophagus had caused some precancerous changes in the cells of his esophagus.

Fortunately, Johnson's problem was caught before he developed esophageal cancer.

Dr. Michael Frist, Johnson's gastroenterologist, says many people are self-medicating their acid reflux, unaware it could be raising their risk, too.

"There are definitely people who have waited too long, and that's a very unfortunate scenario," says Dr. Frist.  "But, we would like to find them sooner, just like with many disease." 

Over-the-counter reflux medications do carry labels advising consumers to see a doctor if their symptoms don't get better in 2 weeks.  

But, Dr. Frist says, many patients are self-medicating, unaware their is a link between long-term acid reflux and esophageal cancer.

"I think a lot of that, again, is because there isn't enough awareness out there," Dr. Frist says.People don't necessarily understand the link, and that is why we are here today to try to raise the awareness," 

To try to get the message out, a group known as the Esphogeal Cancer Action Network is planning to petition the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require labels on over-the-counter reflux medications warning of the cancer risk posed by reflux.  The group also wants the labels to explain that taking these medications does not eliminate that risk. 

 David Johnson says he had no idea.

"You just figure heartburn (medication), you're fine," Johnson says, "It goes away, but actually you're doing damage the whole time."

After a GI scope found his precancerous cells, Johnson is going through a series of ablation treatments, and getting regular checkups. 

He wishes he hadn't waited so long, and that's the message he wants to share.

"If you take Rolaids or medications more than a couple of times a week, or have them in your pockets or bedside table, really that's an indication you need to go see a doctor," Johnson says.

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