We’ve all felt it: A little heartburn after a spicy Tex-Mex meal or after we eat way too much at a holiday feast. Even some of us who experience heartburn more frequently don’t rush to the doctor with worry.
New information might make you think twice.
A recent study by the National Cancer Institute has connected chronic heartburn, typically the result of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), with one of the fastest-growing cancers in America — adenocarcinoma.
“The most common forms of esophageal cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma,” says Prashant S. Kedia, MD, gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Methodist Dallas Medical Center.
Each form tends to develop in different parts of the esophagus due to different genetic changes. Squamous cell carcinoma used to be the most commonly diagnosed form of esophageal cancer in the U.S., but that all started to change in the late 1990s.
A shift in esophageal cancer
Today, Americans are now more likely to be diagnosed with adenocarcinoma. And, while esophageal cancer is still considered a rare cancer, incidence rates of esophageal adenocarcinoma have increased for all age groups 30 and over since the 1970s.
Men, particularly Caucasian men over 50, are more at risk than women.
The exact cause of this mysterious change hasn’t been uncovered, but experts suspect that rising obesity rates and poor diet are linked to the shift.
Heartburn’s connection to cancer
Adenocarcinoma develops in the lower portion of the esophagus and is associated with GERD. Squamous cell carcinoma, on the other hand, typically occurs in the middle and upper part of the esophagus and is connected to tobacco use.
GERD is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach. When the sphincter isn’t functioning normally, stomach acid splashes backward into the esophagus.
“Chronic acid reflux can lead to inflammation in the esophagus,” Dr. Kedia says. “This increases your risk for Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that does not typically have symptoms different from GERD, making it difficult to diagnose. Barrett’s is also a known risk factor for esophageal cancer.”
When is it time to see the doctor?
According to Dr. Kedia, your occasional bout of acid reflux might be something more serious if you are experiencing:
- Heartburn that does not respond quickly, or at all, to over-the-counter medicine
- Difficulty swallowing
- Frequent fevers
- Bowel movements with black stools
- Unexplained weight loss