During your treatment for breast cancer you may end up with an occasional incident of acid-reflux (also called GER- gastro esophageal reflux) or heartburn. For some patients, this can become a more frequent side effect that they need to learn to manage in order to be more comfortable as their treatment progresses.
If it becomes more serious and constant, you may find yourself with a diagnosis of GERD (Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease).
Your digestive system
The basic anatomy of your digestive system is that your mouth empties into your esophagus.
The esophagus is connected to your stomach and has a series of muscles which contract in a wave-like motion to move the food from your mouth down to the stomach.
There is a sphincter at the bottom of your esophagus (think of it like a valve). Under normal conditions this “valve” keeps the food and stomach acid from coming back up into the esophagus. Sometimes, during your treatment for breast cancer, the medications or radiation treatments you receive can affect this valve and some of the food and stomach acid can leak back up into the esophagus.
The pH of your stomach acid is very low (1.35 to 3.5 pH) which means it is a very strong acid. This is why you will get a burning feeling in your esophagus if the sphincter (valve) doesn’t keep the contents of your stomach down where it belongs. This is acid-reflux; heartburn is the resulting pain that you feel in your chest when the strong acid has come up into your esophagus. Having acid-reflux is very unpleasant and you will want to know what to do when it happens.
Tips to help manage heartburn and acid reflux
There are a few simple ways to help manage heartburn and acid-reflux at night, which is when it often occurs.
- First, try to avoid foods that will set it off.
- Second, try to eat dinner early enough so that much of your digestion is well underway before you get into bed
- Third, try raising your head while you sleep. I have a triangular-shaped wedge pillow that I keep close by my bed when I am undergoing chemotherapy. That way it’s easy to grab and I don’t have to go looking in the closets for it in the middle of the night.
If your acid reflux or heartburn persists, or gets worse, contact your physician for assistance.