Subtle Symptoms and Not So Subtle Disease

At first he had a subtle clue that something may be wrong, but he didn’t do anything about it.  “Almost everyone has had heartburn one time or another,” he thought.  But gradually it became worse.  He found that he could control it with over-the-counter pills, so it must not be something so bad.  His wife began bugging him for eating antacid tablets day and night, so he did it on the sly.

Ah! But over time the reflux became less bothersome, and so he was reassured this was nothing dangerous.  Then, one day, food started to stick on the way down and his wife said that she made him an appointment to the doctor. “You had better keep this one,” she said.

Don’t Ignore Your Symptoms

I know of at least seven men diagnosed with esophageal cancer who had a similar story.  Four have passed away, two are cured, and one is receiving chemotherapy and we are hoping for a cure.

It is the feeling of a burp with acid in it, which starts in the stomach, comes back up the food pipe, and ends in the throat.  The fancy name for such a disorder would be gastro (meaning stomach) esophageal (meaning food pipe) reflux (meaning backward movement), or GERD, also called acid reflux.

Reflux can cause some people to have esophageal pain so similar to heart pain and so severe that it is sometimes wrongly diagnosed as a life-threatening heart attack.  This is why its been called “heartburn.”

On the other hand, some people have minimal to almost no discomfort from such reverse movement of stomach acid.  Over the last ten to twenty years, we have learned that many who come to the doctor’s office without reflux symptoms, but with voice change, cough, or asthma, may actually have nighttime reflux, resulting in acid-burned vocal cords and lungs.

Don’t wait for your spouse to make that appointment.  Esophageal symptoms, subtle or not, should bring you to the doctor.


Dr. Rick Holm wrote this Prairie Doc Perspective for “On Call®,” a weekly program where medical professionals discuss health concerns for the general public.  “On Call®” is produced by the Healing Words Foundation in association with the South Dakota State University Journalism Department. “On Call®” airs Thursdays on South Dakota Public Broadcasting-Television at 7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain. Visit us at

By Dr. Richard Holm

Internal Medicine Physician at Avera Brookings Medical Clinic

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