Rhonda Small took quick action and called her doctor when she realized her heartburn was getting worse.
Her late husband, Earl, had suffered from esophageal cancer and Rhonda herself is now president of the Esophageal Cancer Awareness Association.
That's because she understands all too well that heartburn or acid reflux can be a risk factor for esophageal cancer, a deadly cancer that’s been increasing at a rate faster than any other cancer in America.
Still, when Small’s doctor informed her that she had "Barrett’s esophagus," the pre-cursor to a type of esophageal cancer, Small couldn’t believe it.
"When I got the diagnosis, honestly, I was shocked," said Small. Shocked because Barrett’s esophagus puts her at higher risk for an aggressive form of esophageal cancer — a disease that is particularly painful and difficult to treat. If the cancer has spread to organs or lymph nodes, only 4 percent of the patients survive the next five years.
Ten percent of all people with heartburn have Barrett's esophagus, a condition where acid that has sloshed up from the stomach erodes the lining of the food pipe.
Experts call this backing up of stomach acid into the esophagus, reflux.
Some of the things that trigger reflux include chocolate, carbonated beverages, fatty foods and eating before bed. Everyone has heartburn once in a while, but it’s when it becomes more frequent that people move into a danger zone.
"That chronic irritation causes cell changes," said Dr. Harry Snady, a gastroenterologist at Jersey City Medical Center. "Someone with Barrett’s esophagus is definitely on the path to cancer."
However, the good news is that doctors can treat and often cure Barrett’s esophagus and prevent esophageal cancer. Typically, doctors surgically remove the risky cells or burn the top layer of esophageal tissue to remove them.
But more recently there is a newer high-tech method: Freezing the bad cells to death using nitrogen as cold as 320 degrees below zero. It’s called cryotherapy — and it’s done under mild sedation, and the patient feels much more comfortable after the procedure.
"It is like a surface peel of your skin and those top cells, which are the bad ones that you want to get rid of, just get frozen and fall off," explains Dr. Snady, one of the pioneering physicians using cryotherapy. "What grows back after we've frozen and gotten rid of this layer is normal cells."
Rhonda Small, meanwhile, is considering all of her treatment options and promoting awareness that people do more to treat their reflux than just taking antacids and acid blockers.
"That's what a lot of people do with acid reflux. They take the over the counter medication," she said, "and that's not always a wise decision."