It turns out that scorching feeling in your chest that you get after eating a big plate of five-alarm nachos might not be so innocent after all.

Think about the last time you had heartburn. Chances are, it was after you overindulged in some spicy or greasy food that you usually stay away from. (Hey, we’re not judging! We all do it from time to time.)

Now think of the time before that one that you experienced heartburn. Was it in the same week? If the answer is yes, it may be time to head to your doctor.

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, which can cause cancer, specifically esophageal cancer. It’s a result of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which stomach acid splashes up into your esophagus, triggering heartburn and other symptoms, including a scratchy throat or persistent cough.

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According to Michael Johns, MD, professor of clinical otolaryngology-head and neck surgery of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology and Director of the USC Voice Center at Keck Medicine of USC, “Acid reflux occurs when acidic stomach juices back up from the stomach into the esophagus.”

If this goes on long enough without treatment, acid reflux can cause cells in the esophagus to change, leading to Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous stage. If that isn’t caught and treated, it can lead to full-blown cancer.

Barrett’s esophagus occurs in about 5 to 10 percent of people with GERD, and of those cases, only 1 percent develop into cancer. When the condition is caught early on, it’s easy for your doctor to remove the abnormal cells. But Barrett’s esophagus has no symptoms (beyond what you experience with GERD), so it’s essential that if you have GERD, you see a doctor for treatment and monitoring.

According to the American Cancer Society, esophageal cancer is three to four times more common in men than in women. Fortunately, it is a relatively rare cancer and doesn’t make it onto the list of 10 most common cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.

If you are experiencing heartburn regularly (two to three times a week), it is essential to see your primary care physician for a diagnosis and treatment.

If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for a new primary care physician, be sure to schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting http://www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.

By: Anne Fritz