After Indigestion Resolves: Tissue Changes Can Raise Risk of Esophageal Cancer

11.01.2010

James Revier survived lung cancer only to discover that years of indigestion had left their mark on his esophagus.

The treatment for Barrett's involved removing a part of the esophagus and pulling up the stomach to attach it to the remaining esophagus. That can be a risky procedure.

-Ann Chen, MD, Director, Stanford Hospital Barrett's Esophagus Center

Stanford physicians didn't use a scalpel to repair Revier's damaged esophagus. Instead, they carefully inserted a slender tube called an endoscope to carry both heat and freezing gas to remove unwanted tissue. Revier was back at work within days.  

After minimally invasive treatment for damage done by indigestion to his esophagus, James Revier is back at work in the Food Services Office at a local school district. 

SPECIAL FEATURE

Inside Your Digestive System

• Our digestive system has its own brain. Within the nearly 20 feet of tissues that line our food-processing organs are nerves that run the show. In fact, there are 500 million nerve cells and 100 million neurons that, if consolidated, would be about the size of a cat’s brain.

• This enteric (meaning: within the intestines) brain has its own senses, responding to food with the appropriate actions—controlling the system’s muscles, enzymes and hormones.

• Research into neurogastroenterology holds potential in important ways. Among its other functions, our digestive system represents 70 percent of our immune system’s response to unrecognized intruders.

What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?

• Commonly shortened to GERD, this condition happens when stomach contents come back up into the esophagus. Because the stomach contains acids whose job is to dissolve food into digestible material, the esophageal tissue can be damaged as it comes into contact with those harsh acids.

• This reverse action usually takes place because the valve between the esophagus and the stomach fails to work properly. Instead of closing after allowing food to move through to the stomach, it stays open, allowing reverse movement.

• Most of us will experience digestive discomfort on occasion. If we eat too fast or too much all at once, or lay down less than three hours after eating, we are more likely to feel that burning sensation. Sometimes, medications can disrupt digestion, too.

• Smoking can also affect the valve muscle’s function. Tobacco relaxes that muscle and stimulates stomach acid production.

• Women secrete fewer stomach acids than men; they also have stronger valve muscles. Those two elements help reduce the damage done if acids do reach the esophagus.

What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?

• If you suffer such upset on a regular basis, physicians recommend that you see your doctor. The longer stomach acids are in contact with your esophagus, the more likely it is that damage will occur.

I keep thinking about what would have happened if it hadn't been for that piece of meat getting stuck.

-James Revier, patient, Stanford Hospital & Clinics
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