I often write about the importance of prevention when it comes to protecting your health. Routine health screenings are one of the most effective tools we have for catching problems in the early stages, before they become big problems. I recently discussed colonoscopy, the test used to screen for colorectal cancer. Today I will explain endoscopy, a related procedure that can help prevent esophageal cancer.
What Is Endoscopy?
Endoscopy is a procedure performed by a gastroenterologist, usually on an outpatient basis. It is used to examine the esophagus, stomach and duodendum (the first portion of the small bowel) using a thin, flexible scope (endoscope) with a light on the end. The doctor may look directly through the scope or view the inside of your body on a monitor.
To perform the procedure, your doctor may give you a sedative and pain reliever, as well as spray a numbing solution in the throat. Breathing is not affected, and you may be unconscious during the procedure. You may have a mild sore throat afterwards, and you will need a friend or family member to drive you home, due to the sedative. Apart from these relatively small inconveniences, you can resume your normal routine.
Who Should Be Screened?
While colonoscopy is strongly recommended for men and women 50 and older, endoscopy has more narrow testing criteria. Endoscopy is most often used to diagnose Barrett’s esophagus, which is a risk factor for esophageal cancer. Barrett’s esophagus is thought to be caused by Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD.
If you experience the chronic acid reflux of GERD, the cells lining your lower esophagus may become damaged by repeated exposure to stomach acid. The changing color and composition of these cells indicates Barrett’s esophagus. If you have GERD, working with your doctor to manage your symptoms is the best way to prevent Barrett’s.
Only about 10% of people with GERD will be diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus. Though Barrett’s increases the risk of esophageal cancer by only a small percentage, scheduling regular endoscopy screenings is critical for cancer prevention. Most Barrett’s patients should be screened every one to three years, and sometimes every three months if precancerous cell changes are detected.
What You Can Do Today
Now that we have covered the importance and purpose of endoscopy, here are solutions you can use today. Depending on your current health status, consider taking the following steps with your doctor:
1) If you regularly suffer from acid reflux: Make an appointment with your doctor, so he or she can help you eliminate the problem with lifestyle changes, or refer you to a gastroenterologist if necessary. The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can start preventing complications like Barrett’s esophagus.
2) If you have GERD: Follow your doctor’s treatment plan. Since GERD is a risk factor for Barrett’s syndrome, ask about the possibility of an endoscopy screening. Since Barrett’s is a relatively rare condition, opinions differ on when endoscopy should be performed. Only your doctor can assess your needs.
3) If you have Barrett’s esophagus: Do not fall behind on your screenings. When endoscopy is used to detect abnormal cell changes, cancer may be prevented.
Remember, the best prevention is taking charge of your health!