About 12 million American adults have Barrett’s esophagus, but only 1.5 million have been diagnosed.8 Barrett’s esophagus can increase a person’s risk of cancer of the esophagus by 50 times or more.4,6,7,9
Barrett’s esophagus is a disease affecting the lining of the esophagus, the swallowing tube that carries foods and liquids from the mouth to the stomach. It is caused by injury to the esophagus from the chronic backwash of stomach contents, like acid and enzymes, that occurs with abnormal reflux.
People with Barrett’s esophagus may not have any symptoms.10 However, chronic heartburn, difficulty swallowing, nausea, chest pain and other symptoms of GERD may indicate a need for further testing. It is estimated that 13% of the people who have chronic acid reflux — those in high risk groups including chronic GERD, Caucasian, male, over age 50 — also have Barrett’s esophagus.11
In addition to suffering from chronic heartburn, other factors that may put a person at risk for Barrett’s esophagus include:12
Once a person has Barrett’s esophagus, it may continually progress to more serious stages, potentially resulting in esophageal adenocarcinoma, a type of esophageal cancer. There are three stages of Barrett’s esophagus and range from the least serious (intestinal metaplasia without dysplasia) to the most serious (high-grade dysplasia). Dysplasia refers to the abnormalities of tissue or a cell that make it more cancer-like and disorganized. The presence of dysplasia is not considered cancer, but may increase the risk of developing cancer.3,13 Each stage of Barrett’s esophagus is distinguished by the following:
The normal epithelium (lining) of the esophagus is replaced with a type of epithelium resembling that found in the intestine.
Cells appear abnormal when viewed under a microscope and represent a very early stage of pre-cancer of the esophagus.
Cells appear very abnormal when viewed under a microscope and represent a more advanced stage of pre-cancer of the esophagus.
Cancer occurs when the abnormal cells involved in Barrett’s esophagus have rapid and uncontrolled growth and invade the deeper layers of your esophagus. This is called cancer of the esophagus, or esophageal adenocarcinoma (EAC). The cancer can also spread beyond the esophagus.
Although still considered rare, EAC is the most rapidly rising cancer in the U.S.13,14 In the U.S., the incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma rose approximately six-fold from 1975 to 2001.3 In addition, mortality increased more than seven-fold.3 Patients with Barrett’’s esophagus are 30 to 125 times more at risk of developing EAC than patients without the condition.15 Roughly 18% of patients survive at least five years after the diagnosis of esophageal cancer.14
The good news is that there is treatment available. Treatment of Barrett’s esophagus has been shown to reduce the risk of progression to high-grade dysplasia and esophageal adenocarcinoma.16,17
If you or a loved one are at risk for Barrett’s esophagus, find a physician and schedule an appointment today.