The Connection between Heartburn and Esophageal Cancer
05. 15. 2017
Esophageal cancer is among the fastest-growing cancers in the United States. This disease has increased approximately 600 percent over the last few decades, and it currently affects more than 16,000 individuals every year.
There are several risk factors that can contribute to the development of esophageal cancer, such as obesity, poor diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption. However, researchers believe that the stark increase in esophageal cancers may be due to one common factor – untreated acid reflux (Source: Salgi Esophageal Research Foundation).
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a digestive condition that affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is a muscular valve at the base of the esophagus that opens to allow food and liquids to enter the stomach and then closes to prevent the contents of the stomach from escaping into the esophagus. In someone who has GERD, the LES does not close properly. This allows undigested food and gastric juices to reflux upward and damage the delicate esophageal lining.
Over time, damage caused by untreated acid reflux can lead to serious complications. About 5- to 10 percent of GERD patients go on to develop Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that causes abnormal cellular changes in the lining of the esophagus. These abnormal cells increase the risk for adenocarcinoma, the most common type of esophageal cancer.
While only about one percent of people with Barrett’s esophagus will go on to develop esophageal cancer, this condition is considered serious and should be regularly monitored by a doctor. Barrett’s esophagus does not have any obvious symptoms, so it is vital for GERD patients to stay current with treatments and routine follow-ups.
Esophageal cancer in its earliest stages often produces no symptoms. However, some patients may experience:
- Pain or difficulty when swallowing
- Chronic heartburn or indigestion
- Chest pain
- Unexplained weight loss
Talk to you gastroenterologist right away if you develop any of these symptoms. You may be referred for an upper endoscopy, a simple, outpatient procedure that examines the lining of your upper gastrointestinal tract to determine the cause of your digestive issues. While it’s likely that your symptoms are not associated with cancer, it’s always wise to rule out serious complications. Early detection, diagnosis and treatment are the keys to long-term digestive health (Source: WebMD).