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What is Barrett's Esophagus and Can It Lead to Cancer?

What is Barrett's Esophagus and Can It Lead to Cancer?

If you ask most people about the connection between Barrett’s esophagus and cancer risk, chances are, they won’t have any idea of what you’re talking about. After all, Barrett’s esophagus is not a well-known condition, so most people probably won’t have any clue about what it is.

But did you know that Barrett’s esophagus is the most common type of chronic gastrointestinal disease?

It’s more common among people with gastroesophageal reflux disorder or GERD, and affects roughly 5% of those patients. In addition, it can increase a person’s risk of developing esophageal cancer, which is why it is important for people to be aware of this condition.

barrett's esophagus and cancer risk

What is Barrett’s esophagus?

Barrett’s esophagus is a condition wherein the cells that line the esophagus transform into different cells in a process called metaplasia. This occurs when the lining of the esophagus gets damaged, and the normal squamous cell lining of the esophagus is turned into a columnar type, a variant that is normally found in the intestines. These abnormal cells grow in the part where the esophagus is connected to the stomach or the gastroesophageal junction, and can increase a person’s risk for cancer.

Barrett’s esophagus has also no known symptoms. However, you can watch for signs of the conditions it’s associated with like heartburn and acid regurgitation. In fact, the only way to diagnose this condition would be to undergo an endoscopy, so that the doctor can check if there is any abnormal growth in your esophagus.

When it comes to Barrett’s esophagus, heartburn that occurs at least twice a week is the biggest red flag. Heartburn symptoms include a burning sensation in the chest and vomit in the back of the throat (acid regurgitation).

Other symptoms you should watch out for include:

  • Heartburn that worsens or wakes you from sleep
  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • The sensation of food stuck in your esophagus
  • Constant sore throat
  • A sour taste in your mouth or bad breath
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Blood in stool
  • Vomiting

It is possible that this condition could make GERD symptoms worse, such as make it harder to swallow food and cause chest pain. But generally, people with Barrett’s esophagus do not suffer from symptoms brought about by their condition.

What are the causes?

Doctors believe that the main cause of Barrett’s esophagus is due to GERD which causes chronic inflammation of the esophagus. What happens is that over time, the stomach acids start to break down the lining of the esophagus.

Instead of the normal cells lining the esophagus, what grows are cells that are more like that of the small intestine. Although columnar cells are more resistant to the acidic material being regurgitated into the esophagus, they are more prone to transforming into cancer.

Most people with Barrett’s esophagus also have GERD, but this is not always the case. So if you have chronic GERD, or frequently suffer from heartburn, it might be a good idea to get yourself checked.

For some reason, Barrett’s esophagus is more common among men.

What is the connection between Barrett’s esophagus and cancer risk?

Because of the continuing damage caused by reflux, the columnar cells may transform into malignant cells through a process called dysplasia, and cancer can develop in the esophagus. However, the chances of it occurring are relatively low, and most people with Barrett’s esophagus do not get diagnosed with cancer.

Regardless, it would still be a good idea to see a doctor, and take preventive steps to lower the risk of developing cancer.

Who is at risk for this condition?

Older people are more prone to developing Barrett’s esophagus. The average age of people with Barrett’s esophagus is 55, and it is very rare among young people.

Surprisingly, the severity of GERD symptoms does not seem to increase the risk of developing this condition. But recurring bouts of GERD may be a risk factor. People who have had GERD for a long period of time are more prone to this condition. This includes people who have been diagnosed with GERD at a younger age.

What can you do to prevent it?

The management of Barrett’s esophagus begins with the control of GERD.

Here are some things you can do to lower your risk of GERD and Barrett’s esophagus:

  • Try to avoid trigger foods. Spicy and sour foods, garlic, and raw onions are all triggers for GERD. Avoiding these could help reduce the inflammation on your esophagus.
  • Eating more frequently, but with a smaller serving can help avoid reflux.
  • Having a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables can also help with GERD.
  • Additionally, keeping a healthy weight helps prevent the symptoms of acid reflux and GERD from reoccurring.

For more serious cases, doctors can conduct surgery. Usually, doctors would cut away at the abnormal cells, and connect the esophagus to the stomach. This helps ensure that there are no more abnormal cells in the esophagus.

After surgery, the patient continues to undergo treatment to manage GERD symptoms. This helps prevent esophageal irritation and the recurrence of Barrett’s esophagus.

In some cases where the esophagus has narrowed, dilation might be required to fix it. This involves using a tool to widen the narrowed part of the esophagus.

Key Takeaways

When it comes to Barrett’s esophagus, the important thing to remember would be to get it checked by your doctor. The risk of it developing into cancer might be low, but an estimated 5% to 10% of people with GERD develop Barrett’s esophagus.

Controlling GERD symptoms is central to the management of Barrett’s esophagus since it can lower the risk of malignant transformation. Taking steps early on to avoid these conditions can help you avoid more serious complications in the future.

Learn more about Cancer here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Picture of the author
Medical reviewed by Dr. John Paul Abrina, M.D.
Written by Jan Alwyn Batara
Updated Aug 26, 2020
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