GERD a big risk factor for esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer is the fastest growing cancer in the U.S., with a new case diagnosed every 31 minutes.  What many people don’t know is that gastroesophageal reflux disease – or GERD – can actually be a risk factor for esophageal cancer.

Bart Frazzitta of Manalapan, N.J., said he had suffered from GERD for as long as he could remember, but never thought it was anything serious – until the day he found out his chronic acid reflux could be to blame for his cancer diagnosis.

Before his diagnosis, Frazzitta had experienced minimal symptoms – the reason he went to visit the doctor was because he kept choking on his food.

“I had a steak, and I took a bite of the steak, and all of a sudden got a tremendous pain in my esophagus; and I jumped up from the table,” Frazzitta said. “…As I stood up a piece of meat must have cleared. The pain went away.”

Frazzitta said for the rest of the week he made sure to chew his food carefully, but the same thing happened again while eating a burger.

Frazzitta called his doctor, who scheduled an upper GI series for the next morning.  In the afternoon, his doctor called back with bad news:  The test results indicated he had esophageal cancer.

According to Dr. Raja Flores, a thoracic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Frazzitta’s acid reflux could have predisposed him for developing a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which is a precursor for esophageal cancer.

Other risk factors for esophageal cancer include age, gender, smoking, being overweight and drinking alcohol.

Frazzitta’s treatment involved four hours of chemotherapy, five days a week, as well as radiation.  Even so, doctors told him he only had a five to 10 percent chance of living for five years.

His best option for survival was an eight-hour procedure, where doctors hoped to remove the tumors from his esophagus and the diseased tissue in the surrounding areas.  Frazzitta and his wife decided to go through with it, and the surgery was a success.

Now Frazzitta is the president of the Esophageal Cancer Education Foundation, which he founded in order to raise awareness of the disease and fund research for early detection and treatment.  With the help of an advisory board, the foundation also published a guide for patients going through surgery.

“If we can shine a light on this disease and save somebody as a result of what we do that's what it's all about,” Frazzitta said.