Could You Be at Risk for Esophageal Cancer?

Could it be that the innocuous burning pain behind your breastbone after a heavy meal is more than heartburn? Or that the reflux you experience lying down too soon after the meal is doing more than giving you a bad taste in your mouth?

For the 60 million Americans who experience heartburn with regularity, oftentimes an antacid can relieve the discomfort[1]. But what may go unnoticed are the built-up effects of all that stomach contents leaking into the esophagus. As the esophagus continues to be damaged over time, you are putting yourself at risk for a deadly disease: esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer is a cancer that forms in the tissues lining the esophagus. There are 2 types of it: squamous cell carcinoma (cancer that begins in flat cells lining the esophagus) and adenocarcinoma (cancer that begins in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids). According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2009 there have been an estimated 16,470 new cases of esophageal cancer, and it has resulted in an estimated14,530 deaths.[2]

The conclusive factors that put one at risk for esophageal cancer are:

  • Being 65 or older
  • Being male
  • Being obese
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol heavily
  • Acid reflux
  • Barrett's esophagus

Particularly troubling about this that the latter 5 factors have a common denominator: their link to heartburn. Not only are they risk factors for esophageal cancer, but also they are contributing factors to heartburn. Common lifestyle treatments for heartburn include losing weight and stopping smoking and drinking alcohol. Additionally, if these habits continue, they can lead to GERD or Barrett's esophagus, a condition that occurs by a process called intestinal metaplasia-when the tissue lining the esophagus is replaced by tissue that is similar to the lining of the intestine-and that you are 3 to 5 times more likely to develop if you have GERD.[3]

The good news is that Dr. Mark B. Orringer at the University of Michigan, concerned in part with the 350% increase over the last 10-15 years of the adenocarcinoma type of esophageal cancer, developed a procedure, called transhiatal esophagectomy, in which the esophagus is removed (because of either Barrett's esophagus or esophageal cancer) through incisions in the abdomen and the neck, without the need to open the chest. In a survey of 2,000 patients, the mortality rate for the procedure was 1%, down from as high as 20% over 30 years ago.[4] Of course, the ability to save the lives of people with esophageal cancer shouldn't be viewed as a reason to indulge in bad living habits that lead to acid reflux.





[4] University Of Michigan (2007, July 9). "Control Acid Reflux To Help Prevent Esophageal Cancer."