Heartburn, acid reflux can turn into deadly cancer

TAMPA - Millions of Americans suffer from acid reflux and take antacids to deal with the pain.  And that would include me.

But I never knew I could be covering up a very serious problem, which can develop into a silent killer if gone untreated. And I am not alone.

"I remember having pizza and then paying for it the next day or that day," said 52-year-old George Mickle.

George has had acid reflux since he was a teenager, and as it increased in pain and frequency, his doctor prescribed a Proton-pump inhibitor or PPI which reduces acid production in the stomach.

"Every year I went to him, I'd say 'by the way, I need another script for Nexium,' and he wrote it out and never said, 'Go to a GI.'  I never knew about Barretz Esophagus, or GERD or anything.  No one ever discussed that," George explained.

George assumed, like I did, that by taking those PPI pills daily for years, he was protecting his insides from any damage.  But we were wrong.

"It doesn't take care of the problem, it just masks some of the symptoms," says Dr. Alex Rosemurgy, the Director of the Surgical Digestive Disorders and GERD Center at Florida Hospital Tampa.

Dr. Rosemurgy says PPIs are not meant to be used long-term, for numerous reasons.

"It doesn't completely suppress acid production.  When it does, it still doesn't stop reflux.  When they do reflux, it's a potently a strong carcinogen.  It interferes with other medications, and it induces and accelerates osteoporosis.  So why is it so available?  The FDA doesn't make it that available for an extended period of time. It's just misused," Dr. Rosemurgy explained.

Over the last six months, George had trouble swallowing, and finally went for an endoscopy.

"The endoscopy showed there was a mass in my esophagus.  And he took a biopsy and he said it didn't look right.  And four days later it came back as cancer," George said.

That diagnosis shocked him.

"The hardest thing is telling someone, or saying, 'I have cancer,'" George said emotionally.

"Did you have any idea that acid reflux could lead to esophageal cancer?" I asked.

"Not at all.  Not at all," George replied.

Esophageal cancer used to be quite rare, but according to Dr. Rosemurgy, it's now an epidemic.

"The rate of increase is astounding.  And it's increased from going to nothing as being the most common reason people have their esophagus taken out," Dr. Rosemurgy said.

"You want so badly, so badly to take it away.  So badly.  And you can't," said Maeve Mickle, George's wife.

Maeve has been by his side for 28 years.  She was devastated to hear the news.

"It hits you as hard as anyone can imagine that it can possibly hit you.  And when it's someone you love so much and been partners in life, wow," she explained with pain in her face.

She, too, had no idea of any serious risks with acid reflux.

"It's not ok just to take a pill and make the symptom or the pain go away. There's something else there and you need to fight for it," Maeve said.

George just finished seven weeks of chemotherapy and 28 days of radiation. He goes back for more testing July 1.  If the tumor shrunk, doctors will remove his entire esophagus.  So they want to warn others now, don't ignore your acid reflux.

"There's no reason to live your life in pain and possibly have cancer, if it can be fixed," George cautioned.

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A PERSONAL NOTE from WENDY RYAN:

I have suffered from acid reflux for most of my life and just recently had an endoscopy. I will share with you my test results and the surgery now available before it develops into cancer.  I hope you'll join me Tuesday, June 18 at 5:00 p.m. on ABC Action News.

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