By Courtney Gousman
St. Louis (KSDK) - If you suffer from heartburn, you may have heard of Barrett's esophagus.
Once treated it's a manageable condition, and although it's rare, it could be a sign of something more serious.
In this week's 8 Ways to Prevent Cancer segment we answer the question, "Will Barrett's esophagus progress to cancer?"
Twenty percent of Americans experience the aches and pains of heartburn at least twice a week.
Although heartburn sufferers are at increased risk of developing esophageal cancer, the majority of them won't. But a small percentage will develop Barrett's esophagus.
"It really describes a change in the lining of the esophagus, so the esophagus has a certain type of cell that lines it. And when it's exposed to chronic acid, when there's chronic acid exposure, the lining changes to more of a stomach lining," said Dr. Dayna Early with Washington University.
Esophageal cancer is fairly rare, but Barrett's esophagus is one of the biggest risk factors for it.
While most Barrett's patients will never get esophageal cancer, there are two things a person can do to reduce their risk.
"One is to make sure that the esophagus isn't exposed to additional acid. So there are great medications out that are on all insurance plans, proton pump inhibitors that prevent acid production," said Dr. Early.
Second, experts recommend a patient get periodic upper endoscopies and biopsies to determine if there are any precancerous changes.
"I would say don't panic. Be glad you were diagnosed because many of the patients we see with esophageal cancer have had Barrett's for a long time and never knew it, so follow your doctor's recommendations for surveillance with endoscopy and take your acid suppressant medication," said Dr. Early.
Barrett's esophagus is twice as common in men as women.