Heartburn is a common ailment most of us experience from time to time, and doctors say it's normal. But consistent or severe acid reflux isn't normal, and over time can lead to a dangerous - but often highly preventable - cancer.
"Don't put it off. It saved my life. Or at least, it saved my esophagus!"
That's the story we heard from 63-year-old Steve McCulley of Bellefonte, about taking a simple test that changed everything. McCulley was diagnosed with a condition called Barrett's Esophagus about four years ago.
"It's a change in the lining of the esophagus, typically occurs from reflux," explained Dr. David Diehl, an associate in gastroenterology at Geisinger Medical Center near Danville. He says more than 10 million Americans deal with acid reflux, and of them, 15 percent will develop Barrett's Esophagus, which isn't always - but can be - a precursor to esophageal cancer.
"The classic situation is a white male over 50, perhaps who is overweight, perhaps who smokes or used to smoke, and gets a lot of reflux. Someone like that is high risk for being a Barrett's patient," explained Dr. Diehl.
"I've had reflux since my 20's. And it progressively got worse, to where I'd wake up at night with acid in my throat. Very uncomfortable, sometimes painful," McCulley admits.
Doctors finally convinced him to get a series of upper endoscopies to take a look. Not only had he developed Barrett's Esophagus, but he was in the beginning stages of developing cancer too. He underwent a series of procedures, every three months, to remove damaged lining. But because it was caught so early, by last August McCulley was in the clear.
"I keep looking back on what could have been. I feel very fortunate," he said.
Early detection and proper treatment can not just help Barrett's Esophagus, it can eradicate it altogether. Doctors recommend that if you have frequent or severe acid reflux you should tell your physician.