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Live Right, Live Well

Stop Heartburn From Becoming Cancer

Whether you have heartburn, IBS, ulcers or IBD, learn how to minimize your risk of cancer.

When you have a persistent, painful digestive woe -- like chronic heartburn or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), an ulcer or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) -- you may have wondered whether it may one day lead to serious complications, such as cancer. And indeed, some of these conditions have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. In fact, the Esophageal Cancer Action Network named April “Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month” to bring national attention to this sneaky disorder, which has few, if any, symptoms in its early stages -- but has been linked to GERD.

The good news: “Currently, we have available excellent methods of identifying early cancers or precancerous conditions of the gastrointestinal tract that are completely curable, so the key is to see your doctor early,” says Dr. Charlene Prather, a gastroenterologist and professor of internal medicine at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Here’s what you need to know to stop heartburn or any other digestive ailment from becoming cancer:

Chronic Heartburn/GERD
Cancer risk:
Chronic heartburn, or GERD, puts you at increased risk of a complication called Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition involving cellular changes that result from chronic exposure to acid and inflammation. Barrett’s esophagus, in turn, puts you at increased risk of esophageal cancer, says Prather. “The risk is 0.5 percent per year, so if you’re 50 and you live to age 80, the risk of cancer is 15 percent.”

What you can do to protect yourself: If you have chronic heartburn or GERD, it’s essential that you have regular upper endoscopies (a procedure that involves inserting a lighted, flexible tube into the esophagus) and biopsies (if necessary) to help doctors detect esophageal cancer early. Depending on the level of abnormal cells that are found, “ablation procedures, which involve burning or freezing the inside lining of the esophagus and allowing new cells to heal over it, can usually be done,” Prather explains.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Cancer risk:
Good news! You can cross this one off your worry list. “People suffer profoundly from irritable bowel syndrome, but it does not affect your risk of cancer in any way,” says Prather.

What you can do to protect yourself: No extra screening measures are required, but be sure to get regular checkups and routine colonoscopies, which experts recommend for everyone. This is especially important if you have a family history of colon cancer.

Ulcers
Cancer risk:
Most stomach ulcers are related to either excessive use of aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen or naproxen, or to infection with the Helicobacter pylori bacteria (H. pylori, for short). NSAID-related ulcers don’t increase the risk of cancer, but H. pylori “is considered a carcinogen,” says Prather.

What you can do to protect yourself: “If you have an ulcer caused by [H. pylori], you should be treated with antibiotics and checked to see if the infection is cured afterward,” Prather says. If the infection goes away, so does the increased risk of stomach cancer.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Cancer risk:
If you have ulcerative colitis, you have a 5 to 10 percent lifetime risk of developing colon cancer, says Prather. With Crohn’s disease, if the entire colon is involved, that can increase the risk of colon cancer after 8 to 10 years, she adds.

What you can do to protect yourself: You should have a colonoscopy and surveillance biopsy every one to two years to catch early signs of cancer and treat them. “The better you keep your disease under control, the less likely you are to develop cancer,” says Prather.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/endopack