I have 3 kids under the age of 5 (update: as of 2016, it’s 4 kids under the age of 7 now…). So when I had the chance to go grocery shopping the other day all by myself, I jumped on it. What a wonderful feeling, gliding lightly through the parking lot, feeling the breeze in my hair, noticing the trees preparing for spring. Not having to mutter crazy things like “Please give that half-eaten sandwich back to the seagulls,” or “Of course we’ll say hi to the lobsters when we get inside.” Sometimes, it’s the little things that bring the most joy…
In any case, I was very much enjoying my mini vacation. And since my attention was free to wander, I happened to see a bumper sticker I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. The car parked next to me stated “Heartburn can cause Cancer.” Being a nurse, I immediately wondered…is that true?
Being a master at using my 4-Step-Study Method, I almost as quickly realized “Yes! Of course, that makes sense.”
Heartburn is the common name for Gastric Reflux, which is when stomach acid splashes out of the stomach and up into the opening of the esophagus. Since splashing acid on healthy tissue is not generally a good thing, we would expect that chronic reflux could damage the esophageal cells over time.
Cell damage can take different forms, but ultimately there’s going to be some DNA damage happening. In a healthy person, cells are pretty good at repairing minor damage to DNA. In fact, those kinds of minor repairs are going on all the time in response to sunburns, x-rays, nuclear bombs…well, maybe not the last one. But you get the idea: radiation or physical damage to the cellular DNA can cause the cell to malfunction unless it is quickly repaired. Good thing our cells have mechanisms in place to do this important work!
However…remember what you learned back in Pathophysiology? How sometimes the DNA damage happens at just the wrong time, like immediately before the cell divides through mitosis? In cases like that, the damaged DNA gets passed on to the daughter cells. They’ve now become: a mutation (Cue scary music. Or not.)
The more mutations that occur over time, the more likely that one of the mutations will cause the cell to act abnormally and become cancer. These cancerous mutations typically fall into one of two categories: 1) they cause the cell to do something it’s not normally supposed to do, or 2) they fail to stop the cell from doing something wrong. Either way, you’ve got cancer.
Back to that grocery store parking lot. Since chronic heartburn could cause significant damage to the esophagus over time, it made a lot of sense to me that those damaged cells could eventually turn cancerous. When I got home, I googled heartburn and cancer just to “check my answer,” and sure enough: chronic heartburn is a risk factor for esophageal cancer.
That, my friends, is a perfect example of how to think like a nurse.
What random, nursing-related bumper stickers have you seen?