April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month

We’ve all probably experienced the occasional heart burn, but when does a common annoyance become a health issue? Esophageal cancer is increasing at a faster rate than any other cancer in the United States.

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Esophageal cancer is deadly – with more lives lost each year than melanoma, skin cancer, or cervical cancer.  It’s increasing at a fast rate due in part to lifestyle factors like obesity and dietary choice. 

Esophagus Cancer

Esophagus Cancer

Esophagus Cancer

Dr. Nathan Jaqua, Gastroenterologist at the Rapid City Medical Center, says, “One of the reasons it’s so deadly is that it typically doesn’t show symptoms until it progresses and it’s pretty late. So about one in five people that are diagnosed with esophageal cancer will survive because typically it’s diagnosed at a late stage.”

Risk factors for esophageal cancer include heavy alcohol consumption, smoking, and Barrett’s esophagus, which is when your esophagus lining changes from acid damage. 

The risk factors include chronic heartburn – for five or more years, being over the age of 50, current or past smoker, being overweight, being male, and family history. 


Symptoms and signs of esophageal cancer may include indigestion, difficult or painful swallowing, hoarse voice or cough, and unintentional weight loss.  

If you have two or more symptoms, Jaqua says considered a screening with an upper endoscopy to look at the upper GI tract. He says that there is no prep work for an upper endoscopy and the procedure takes about 10 minutes. They would take a biopsy of anything suspicious. Patients may have to repeat the screening over time if symptoms change.

Early detention could be a life saver. 

“If we catch the Barrett’s early, it’s very treatable. You know, we surveil it with interval, upper endoscopies and once you show that disorder or that dysplastic mucosa in there we can get it ablated and taken out and so it’s treatable if caught early,” says Jaqua.

Jaqua adds that even when symptoms are controlled by medication or dietary modifications, you may still have the underlying condition. Over-the-counter heart burn medication can control long term symptoms, but they can be overused and hide the signs of cancer. Many don’t realize the damage being done. 

heart burn pills

Jaqua notes that changing lifestyle choices can be beneficial, saying, “Losing weight is the first thing that you can do, the studies have shown that even five pounds of weight loss can significantly improve you heart burn symptoms.”

Ask your primary care physician or your gastroenterologist if screening is appropriate for you.

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