A common side effect of untreated heartburn, or acid reflux disease, is Barrett’s esophagus. This is a condition in which the cells of the lower esophagus protect themselves against constant acidic attacks by mutating. The bad news is that this common side effect of heartburn or acid reflux can lead in rare cases to cancer. But now if you develop Barrett’s esophagus, doctors have a better way to treat the condition and decrease your cancer risk by 80 percent to 90 percent, says Dr. Nicholas Shaheen of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Shaheen was the lead author of a recent New England Journal of Medicine study that proved the efficacy of radio-frequency ablation, which destroys precancerous Barrett’s cells. During radio-frequency ablation, doctors extend an endoscope that has a balloon attached to it down into the throat. Then the balloon is expanded after it reaches the lower esophagus, Shaheen says. The balloon’s surface is covered with tiny, metal coils that emit radio-frequency waves that destroy the abnormal cells. In the past, doctors treated Barrett’s esophagus using lasers, which killed healthy cells, too, and left some abnormal cells intact, Shaheen adds. Because radio-frequency ablation is still so new, the cost for consumers is unknown, and more research is being conducted, he says.