Image courtesy of Prevention

You know what to do for heartburn: pop a couple of antacids after dinner, avoid common triggers like fatty, greasy, or spicy foods, and hope it goes away quickly. Right? Well, not necessarily. If you have regular heartburn--two or more times a week--and haven't notified your doctor, you're ignoring one of the biggest cancer risk factors around.

Yep, you read that right: acid reflux, of which heartburn is a symptom, can actually cause cancer--cancer of the esophagus, to be exact. And even if you had heartburn problems years ago and they seem to have gone away, this is one health issue you shouldn't ignore.

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Before you start freaking out, let's look at the facts. The problem starts when stomach acid splashes up into the esophagus. This is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or simply acid reflux, and it can trigger painful symptoms like heartburn, or more subtle ones like a constant cough or scratchy throat. Over the years, acid reflux can cause cell changes in the esophagus, leading to a precancerous stage known as Barrett's Esophagus. From there, if left unchecked, full-blown esophageal cancer can develop.

Esophageal cancer is more common in men than women by about a three-to-one ratio, and most common for both sexes after the age of 55. An estimated 17,460 new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, according to the American Cancer Society, making it relatively rare among cancers (by comparison, about 226,870 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer). Unfortunately, the survival rates for esophageal cancer are grimmer than many other types: only about 15 to 20% of patients will survive for more than 5 years after diagnosis.

"Every cancer can be deadly, but we consider esophageal cancer to be particularly so, because most cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage," says Dr. Bruce Greenwald, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and Greenebaum Cancer Center and chairman of the board of directors of the Esophageal Cancer Action Network. "The flip side is that if people who have heartburn symptoms are screened, we can detect it earlier."

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