Burning Away Barrett's Esophagus

WASHINGTON, D.C. If someone breaks it, there's a good chance John Davies can fix it. The former Royal Australian Air Force wing commander spent 29 years working on planes -- a high stress job that took a toll on his health.

"It just would last just about all night, just terrible pain," Davies told Ivanhoe.

That stomach pain came from Davies' long battle with heartburn and acid reflux disease. It turned into a more serious problem called Barrett's esophagus. The stomach acid causes cells that line the esophagus to change, putting Davies at a 40 percent higher risk of developing cancer.

"You really get scared, which I was," Davies said.

Davies had two procedures to cut out the Barrett's, but it returned. Doctors then turned to a radiofrequency treatment to burn off the precancerous cells.

"Essentially, [you are] using thermal energy to go ahead and damage the tissue and destroy the cells," John Carroll, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., told Ivanhoe.

An endoscope with a tiny balloon or probe at the tip goes into the esophagus. It delivers radiofrequency energy through heat coils, destroying the thin layer of tissue where the problem cells live.

"It burns off the superficial layer but doesn't go deeper," Dr. Carroll said. "The esophagus heals remarkably quickly."

In traditional surgery, doctors remove a portion of the esophagus and reconnect it to the stomach. It keeps patients in the hospital for three weeks, and eating can be a challenge. The new radiofrequency treatment is an outpatient procedure that takes about 30 minutes. People can eat the next day.

"It's like the weight of the world had come off your shoulders, thinking at one point you're going go through this major surgery," Davies said.

Davies has regular check-ups to monitor his esophagus.

"I expect the best," he said. "I don't expect to see it again hopefully in the rest of my life."

A handyman who is grateful doctors found a way to fix him up without surgery. In one study, 74 percent of people had no evidence of Barrett's esophagus in their biopsies after the radiofrequency treatment. Patients will typically take medication after the procedure to prevent acid reflux from returning.

Office of John Carroll, M.D.
Georgetown University Hospital
(202) 444-6649

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