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Heartburn’s burn and the risk for esophageal cancer

contributed by Kim Zapor, R.N., BSN, OCN, CBCN., Cancer AnswerLine nurse

image of what heartburn might look like
Reflux of stomach acid over time can damage the lining of the esophagus, which can lead to esophageal cancer.

Heartburn. It's a symptom that many people experience on a regular basis. What many people don't realize is that long-term heartburn can put them at risk for esophageal cancer. The esophagus is the long tube that connects the throat to the stomach. Reflux of stomach acid over the long haul can damage the lining of the esophagus, which can lead to cancer.

Dr. Mark Orringer, professor of thoracic surgery at the University of Michigan, and a pioneer in esophageal surgery, has seen a change over the last three decades in the type of patient developing esophageal cancer. Once primarily found in individuals who drank alcohol and smoked excessively, it is now seen in greater numbers with those suffering from obesity, coupled with reflux.

Other esophageal cancer risk factors:

  • Age – most common in individuals 55 and older
  • Gender – 3x higher in men
  • Obesity
  • Tobacco and alcohol use
  • Reflux (GERD)
  • Barrett’s esophagus (tissue lining the esophagus is replaced by tissue that is similar to the intestinal lining)
  • Overeating

Is there regular screening performed to detect esophageal cancer?

No. There is no screening test for those with average to low risk; however, people at higher risk, like those with Barrett’s esophagus are monitored more closely for the disease.

What can I do to prevent cancer of the esophagus?

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Treat reflux (heartburn)

Get more information about heartburn and esophageal cancer:

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