How this man’s heartburn led to cancer

When you hear the word “heartburn,” you probably don’t immediately make the leap to “cancer.” But Sam Douglass does.

It’s easy to dismiss that uncomfortable burning in your chest as the inevitable consequence of a particularly heavy meal, but chronic heartburn is more serious than you may realize. Though still rare, esophageal cancer related to chronic acid reflux is one of the fastest-growing cancers in America.

Over time, the acid from uncontrolled heartburn can cause damage to the esophagus. For some people, like Sam, that damage leads to esophageal cancer.

One day in his primary care physician’s office, Sam and his doctor had a very frank conversation. To everyone’s surprise, Sam’s wife Joanne, 45, had just discovered that she was pregnant. But Sam’s doctor was honest in his assessment — at 52 years old and weighing nearly 300 lbs, he likely wouldn’t live to see his daughter graduate high school.

Related: Chronic heartburn linked to one of the fastest-growing cancers in America

That conversation was Sam’s wake-up call. He didn’t want his daughter to grow up without her father. Through diet, exercise and gastric bypass surgery, he changed his lifestyle, lost 100 lbs and was healthier than ever.

When he began experiencing frequent heartburn, referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), he wasn’t initially concerned. He brushed it off, thinking, Doesn’t everyone get heartburn sometimes?

But as time went on, Sam increasingly felt that something wasn’t right. Joanne, a nurse at Baylor University Medical Center, made a suggestion that may have saved Sam’s life. He was already scheduled for a routine colonoscopy, but she suggested that he ask his doctor about an upper endoscopy, which would only add about 15 minutes to the procedure and might help determine the cause of Sam’s acid reflux.

“Explore."

The endoscopy revealed that Sam had developed a condition called Barrett’s esophagus with dysplasia, or precancerous cells. Barrett’s esophagus, one of the most significant risk factors for esophageal cancer, occurs when the esophagus is exposed to too much acid. Sam’s doctor referred him to a specialist and recommended he get it checked out — and soon.

Sam was one of the first patients to be treated at the Baylor Scott & White Center for Esophageal Diseases by gastroenterologist Vani Konda, MD.

“This is where the miracle comes in,” Sam said.

The first step was a biopsy to test the tissue of Sam’s esophagus for cancer. As planned, Dr. Konda remove several tissue samples the size of a quarter. But during the procedure, she also decided to clip a slightly suspicious looking dot the size of the end of a ballpoint pen.

The tissue samples came back clear, but that little dot turned out to be cancerous.

“Dr. Konda was practically giddy when she called,” Sam said. “Although cancer is never good news, esophageal cancer is rarely caught this early. I’m extremely lucky.”

“Be proactive,” Sam said. “You only have one body. Listen and take care of it. When in doubt, check it out.”

Often diagnosed only after more serious symptoms arise, advanced esophageal cancer is difficult to treat. Because his cancer was caught early, Sam avoided surgery to remove part or all of the esophagus. His treatment took the form of regular treatments called ablations to “burn” the tissue of his esophagus and allow new tissue to grow.

Today, Sam is active, healthy and as close as he can be to cancer-free. He’s now passionate about sharing his story to help others take ownership of their own health.

Not all heartburn leads to cancer, and the occasional bout of heartburn should not be a cause for worry. But if you are experiencing heartburn regularly — especially if it is daily or can’t be controlled — it’s worth bringing up with your doctor.

Related: “Doctor, I have a lump in my throat”

“Be proactive,” Sam said. “You only have one body. Listen and take care of it. When in doubt, check it out.”

Is your body trying to tell you something? Talk to a doctor today or find a digestive specialist near you.

About the author

Grace Glausier
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Grace Glausier is a senior digital engagement strategist for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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How this man’s heartburn led to cancer