Healthwatch: Barrett's Esophagus

Barrett's Esophagus is a condition that changes the lining of the food pipe over a period of time as it's damaged by heartburn or acid reflux. Dr. Paul Varela at Rush Clinic says patients who suffer this condition have a high risk of developing cancer.

"The people who get Barrett's Esophagus obviously are those that have long standing reflux, perhaps longer than five years," said Dr. Varela. "And interestingly enough, white males. And of course, patients that are 50 years old and above."

Varela says diagnosis requires a biopsy of the tissue. That's why he says anyone who has had repeated heartburn or acid reflux should see a specialist who can take appropriate action.

"This, I hope, is the message that I hope we can get to the public, that Barrett's Esophagus needs to be screened. The very same reason that we're screening for colon polyps trying to prevent colon cancer, likewise in Barrett's, be screened for the presence of Barrett's," Varela said.

Varela says once a diagnosis is made, the damaged lining should be removed. That's done through radio-frequency ablation, which is only available in Meridian at the Rush GI Lab.

Varela says cancer of the esophagus is increasing, and those with Barrett's Esophagus have a much higher chance of developing cancer than, for instance, those who have colon polyps developing colon cancer.

Varela says the chances of cancer developing for those who have high-grade Barrett's Esophagus are astronomical. The best treatment is prevention, he says, because cancer of the esophagus is difficult to treat.

"And the best thing we can offer is screening, and if we find it, eradicate it," said Dr. Varela.

Varela said the procedure takes about an hour, and is done under sedation. Anyone with recurring symptoms of heartburn should be screened.

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