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Doc Talk: 15-minute screening for Barrett's esophagus might prevent cancer

Barrett’s occurs when the esophagus suffers constant irritation, changing normally smooth pink tissue to red and blotchy. (Contributed)

Forty percent of Americans have some type of symptom related to reflux; it's very common.

For relief, many turn to acid reducing medication, over the counter and even prescription versions. But if you can't find relief and the symptoms don’t go away, doctors said ignoring the problem could lead to a pre-cancerous condition known as Barrett's esophagus.

Stephanie Markle, an acute care surgeon at Borgess Health, said Barrett’s occurs when the esophagus suffers constant irritation, changing normally smooth pink tissue to red and blotchy.

“The problem with that is, if you let this keep going, in about 10 years you may develop, ... 7 percent of those people will develop esophageal cancer.”

Before it gets that far, there is good news. Anyone diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus early can be treated.

“This is the same thought process that people have when screening for cervical cancer, where they go and they get rid of those bad cells,” Markle said. “And then they have no more pre-cancerous lesions, and no more risk factor for cancer. We can do the same in the esophagus.”

Markle said the nonsurgical treatment that can be done at Borgess is 80 percent to 90 percent effective in removing those precancerous lesions.

Barrett's esophagus isn't all that common, she said, but there has been an increase in diagnosis, particularly among certain groups.

“Chronic [indigestion or acid reflux], not relieving with meds, white males in their 40s; that's a large population in this region,” she said.

To determine if you have Barrett's you must talk to your doctor, Markle said. And you need to be screened.

“I do sometimes think that patients need to be a little bit proactive," Markle said. "If you're like man, I’ve been taking this med for 10 years, maybe I should at least get that looked at."

“The procedure takes about 15 minutes, and then you go home,” Markle said. “So this is something that if you can prevent the development of a pretty aggressive cancer, 15 minutes is all it takes. It’s definitely worth seeking.”


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