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New surgery removes precancerous heartburn

June 15, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's the fastest-growing cancer in the country and now doctors recommend it be treated more aggressively. In fact, experts say you should treat high risk patients before it turns into cancer.

Nearly 13,000 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer this year, and it could be fueled by something as common as acid reflux.

But thanks to new guidelines doctors can zap away the damage before the cancer can form.

A normal day for Tom Geocaris consists of a lot of exercising. You can't tell by looking at him, but just a few years ago, Tom's life went from normal to near deadly.

"It started out as occasional heartburn maybe after big meals and holidays, and then it got to be more frequent," said Tom.

His acid reflux had developed into Barrett's Esophagus. It's where the lining of the esophagus is damaged by stomach acid. If left untreated the condition could turn into cancer.

"About a 300-fold increase in the risk of cancer of the esophagus in people with Barrett's Esophagus," said Dr. George Triadafilopoulos, a gastroenterologist at Stanford Hospital.

In the past, Barrett's was often treated with surgery that included serious risks and side effects. Triadafilopoulos used a newer and less-invasive approach to burn off Tom's pre-cancerous cells.

During the half-hour radiofrequency ablation procedure, a tool is inserted into the esophagus and touches the Barrett's tissue. Then the balloon is inflated and releases energy that literally burns the Barrett's away.

The balloon is then deflated and removed with minimal complications or pain.

Until now doctors took a wait-and-see approach with high-risk Barrett's patients to see if cancer would develop, but new recommendations say these patients can't afford to wait and should be treated immediately.

While Tom still has occasional heartburn, his Barrett's is gone, he's cancer-free and he's back to his normal routine.

"I feel pretty secure about the situation. Normal's very good," said Tom.

After the procedure, most patients still have to take medication to control their acid reflux.

Doctors say if you have frequent heartburn and your symptoms become significantly worse, it's a good idea to get it checked out.

Radiofrequency ablation is covered by Medicare and some private health insurance plans.

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