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Commentary: Listen to what your heartburn may be telling you

By Dr. Nikolai Bildzukewicz

Categories: Cancer

If reaching for an antacid following a meal has become a form of dessert for you, it may be time to reevaluate that burning sensation in your chest.

While occasional heartburn is nothing to be alarmed about, especially after a particularly spicy or fatty meal, persistent heartburn may signal a more serious problem.

April marks Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, and while this type of cancer can be caused by a multitude of risk factors, one of the most common culprits is something very treatable.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is often labeled acid reflux or heartburn, but these terms are not interchangeable.

GERD is not just a symptom. GERD is truly a disease and should be taken seriously.
Patients who suffer from GERD have a malfunctioning sphincter, or valve, at the lower end of the esophagus, which allows for chronic and often severe reflux of gastric contents (acid, bile, digestive enzymes, etc.).

If left untreated, it can lead to the formation of Barrett's esophagus — a change in the lining of the esophagus to protect against the frequent exposure to gastric contents.

Barrett's esophagus increases the risk of developing adenocarcinoma — a common type of esophageal cancer.

Nearly 18,000 people are diagnosed with esophageal cancer each year. These cases include adenocarcinoma as well as squamous cell carcinoma, which is heavily linked to tobacco and alcohol use.

Patients suffering from GERD should put down the Tums and Zantac and get to a specialist.
While these medications often provide relief from heartburn, they don't target the root cause of the disease.

A thorough evaluation for GERD followed by surgery is the only way to repair the lower esophageal sphincter and prevent chronic reflux.

The Hoag-USC Digestive Disease Center offers a revolutionary new surgical treatment for this disease — the LINX Reflux Management System.

A small ring of titanium-encased magnetic beads is placed around the lower esophageal sphincter to augment its normal function and help minimize reflux.

The procedure is minimally invasive, takes only 30 minutes, is done on an outpatient basis and leaves patients able to eat normally immediately following the procedure.

Esophageal cancer rates continue to rise throughout the United States. By minimizing reflux and its complications, the LINX system can potentially reduce these rates.

So listen to your heartburn.

A free community education event — Heartburn, Acid Reflux and GERD: Preventing the Progression to Esophageal Cancer — will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. April 25. Registration is required by calling (800) 400-HOAG.

NIKOLAI BILDZUKEWICZ is an esophageal and gastric surgeon at the Hoag Digestive Disease Center.