Patient Stories at NCH

Judith's Story

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GERD: More serious than she ever imagined

Heartburn. Judy B., 73, thought it was just part of life. Of course it was worse after she ate spicy foods; but most of the time it didn't seem to matter what she ate, or when or how much. Soon after eating, she would feel a pain in her chest, right at the bottom of her rib cage, a burning sensation and sometimes a bitter taste in her mouth.

A resident of Joliet, Judy went to her personal physician and was told she had GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease. He explained that the valve between her esophagus and her stomach was opening at the wrong times, allowing stomach acid to back up into her esophagus – burning the delicate tissue and causing pain in her chest. After careful monitoring, her doctor began to suspect more serious damage was being done. He recommended that she see Dr. Willis Parsons, an NCH expert in the treatment of GERD and a condition called Barrett's esophagus.

Barrett's esophagus: Damage that can lead to cancer

Barrett's esophagus is a precancerous condition in which the cells of the lower esophagus become damaged from repeated exposure to stomach acid. The condition was only recognized in the 1950s – now doctors view it as a possible precursor to cancer. Dr. Parsons found Barrett's in Judy's esophagus.

But Judy got a lucky break. It was 2007, and Dr. Parsons happened to have a new treatment option for patients with Barrett's esophagus: Radiofrequency (RF) Ablation. Judy was one of his first patients to have this procedure.

RF Ablation: Removing damaged cells before they become cancerous

"RF Ablation is a relatively new procedure; but then, Barrett's esophagus is a relatively new diagnosis," says Dr. Parsons. "In the past, patients went from having heartburn to having esophageal cancer – and the only treatment for them was removing half the esophagus, followed by chemo and radiation therapy."

"When I was an intern and a fellow," he continues, "patients with damage from GERD had two options: repeated endoscopies to see if the cells had changed further ('watchful waiting'), and then an esophagectomy (removal of part of the esophagus) if cancer was found. That surgery is very difficult to recover from and has a 20-30% chance of complications."

In a RF Ablation, the physician uses a flexible catheter with small electrodes on the end that can be guided endoscopically into the esophagus and used to ablate (or burn off) the damaged cells. The delivery of energy is precisely controlled by a radiofrequency generator, so only the top layer of the lining of the esophagus is ablated. "I tell my patients that it is like a controlled sunburn being applied to the affected tissues," says Dr. Parsons.

In fact, Judy really lucked out. When Dr. Parsons performed the first ablation, he discovered something that had not been seen before. "We found a nodule down at the bottom of her esophagus. So we performed the ablation on all the Barrett's above the nodule, then took a biopsy of the nodule. Turned out it was cancerous – but we caught it early. During a second procedure, we did a 'scooping' procedure to take the nodule out and then performed the rest of the ablation."

Virtually painless treatment that can save your life

"The ablations – I've had several over the past 5 years – are really easy. I expected to feel pain afterwards but I didn't," says Judy. "It's just like having an endoscopy done. My voice was a little raspy after the first one, but for the most part, I felt fine afterwards."

"To anyone reading this who has heartburn two or more times a week, please, please get it checked out," she continues. "You can't diagnose yourself. That heartburn could be doing real damage to your esophagus."

Now Judy sees Dr. Parsons every nine months for a check up. "Dr. Parsons saved my life," says Judy. "He not only found the cancerous nodule, but he prevented me from having part of my esophagus removed. I love him. We'll be friends for life."