Acid reflux is the greatest risk factor for esophageal cancer

Posted at 11:26 PM, May 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-11 10:32:20-04

For years, 59-year-old, Charles Rutherford, dealt with acid reflux.

"I can remember back to when I was 8 or 9-years-old and it seemed like peanut butter," he said. "When I would eat a peanut butter sandwich I would have a burning in my chest and a glass of milk would put the fire out."

Rutherford, like many others, would take over the counter medications for temporary relief.

But it didn't seem to be enough.

He had complained of chest pains in the past, and after a night of experiencing difficulty breathing and an elevated heart rate, his wife urged him to get checked out.

"It was probably 1:30 a.m. and I had to be up at 4:30 a.m. for work. She said well you're not going to go to work. You're going to go to the hospital," Rutherford said. 

Doctors diagnosed him with Barrett's Esophagus --  a precursor to Esophageal cancer--caused by his years of reflux.

"You kind of die. I probably die two or three times and you try preparing for that," he said.

Acid reflux is the greatest risk factor for esophageal cancer, a cancer often diagnosed in the late stages when treatment is rarely successful.

Doctors say symptoms of acid reflux can include heartburn, regurgitation, chronic cough and voice change.

"Most people with acid reflux will never get esophageal cancer. However without being checked there's no way to know if a person is at an increased risk," said Dr. Bruce Greenwald. "The type of cancer that is increasing at the fastest rate is called adenocarcinoma, a medical term."

Dr. Bruce Greenwald, a Professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says when it comes to esophageal cancer and acid reflux, awareness is key.

"Be aware that acid reflux may lead to something more serious, talk to your doctor or health care provider about it, and if they feel it's appropriate you can get checked and we can look for the damage in an upper endoscopy," he said.

Since his diagnosis, Rutherford has gone onto have about a half dozen procedures at the University of Maryland Medical Center removing the dysplasia. He knows things could have been much worse if he waited any longer and is urging others to get checked.

"Your body will tell you when something was wrong.If you have any doubts going to a professional," he said.

This month, the Baltimore based Esophageal Cancer Action Network (ECAN) filed a citizen petition with the FDA seeking labels on over-the-counter reflux medications warning users that if they have persistent reflux disease they are at risk of developing esophageal cancer and that the medication does not eliminate the risk.

Dr. Greenwald, who is an ECAN board member, says he doesn't expect this to be a quick process saying it could take many months, possibly even years.