Thanksgiving is GERD Awareness Week and the Minnesota Reflux & Heartburn Center reminds people to learn the facts about Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease and become familiar with its symptoms and risk factors.

GERD means that acid is splashing up into the esophagus from the stomach, burning the lining of the esophagus. That can cause the cells of the esophagus to become damaged, eventually to the point of developing precancerous change in the esophagus. This condition is known as Barrett’s Esophagus and only one out of 20 people know they have it because the chronic damage may reduce or eliminate heartburn symptoms.

Patients with Barrett’s Esophagus have 25 times the chance of developing deadly esophageal cancer compared to the average person.

“Esophageal cancer is not entirely preventable but knowing the risk factors and recognizing the symptoms can help us detect and treat Barrett’s Esophagus, the known precursor to cancer,” said Dr. Paul Severson, reflux specialist and medical director of the Minnesota Reflux & Heartburn Center.

Risk factors for esophageal cancer include: GERD, hiatal hernia, family history, obesity and smoking. Common symptoms include heartburn, regurgitation, difficulty swallowing, chronic cough, throat clearing and hoarseness. Severson emphasized that these symptoms should be investigated long before signs of cancer begin, such as loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue and blood in the stool.

“Once cancer is present, it is too often not possible to save the patient’s life,” he said.

People with risk factors who experience chronic symptoms of GERD that fail to respond to medical therapy should schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider.