April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, and public concern for the disease should be at an all time high. One possible culprit responsible for the increase according to recent medical studies indicates that heartburn is linked to esophageal cancer. In 2006 over 16,000 people were diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the United States according to The Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Even though esophageal cancer rates are not in the top ten of all cancers, its numbers are steadily rising.
With heartburn linked to esophageal cancer, those that suffer from chronic stomach acid issues should consult with a doctor as soon as possible. One area of concern about the link is that many people who do suffer from heartburn, are not aware of it. Heartburn is any condition that adversely affects acid reflux in the stomach. Chronic heartburn can also mask itself as gastroesophageal reflux disease GERD and Barrett’s esophagus.
Out of the common heartburn conditions, Barrett’s esophagus is tied to the highest association with esophageal cancer. It is a precancerous condition in which the cells of the lower esophagus become damaged from repeated exposure to stomach acid. It is estimated that over 2 million people in the US have the condition.
Recent research out of the University of California at San Francisco, suggest that a common link of excess stomach acid or heartburn to esophageal cancer is plausible. The National Cancer Society also supports recent research that suggests so as well.
Early detection is the key to combating esophageal cancer, especially when linked to Barrett’s esophagus or chronic heartburn. The research team at the Seattle Barrett’s Esophagus program has produced findings that show that with early detection, 5-year survival rates for those diagnosed with esophageal cancer can increase all the way up to 80 percent from the current 15 percent survival rate.
Esophageal cancer is seeing the sharpest rise in women and African Americans, even though it is most prevalent among middle aged white men in the US.
Being mindful about prevention is the first line of defense when being conscious of reducing the risks of developing esophageal cancer and decreasing chronic acid reflux or heartburn.
Prevention tips include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight or losing excess weight
- Watching proportion size of all meals to avoid heartburn
- Quitting smoking
- Avoiding alcohol
For those that suffer from chronic heartburn or Barrett’s esophagus, the team at the University of California at San Francisco also suggests that taking an aspirin, ibuprofen, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) daily can reduce the risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer.
The study followed 250 Barrett’s patients over a 10-year period of time and during that time, those that took a NSAID daily reduced their risk of developing cancer by 30 percent. The other half of the test group, who did not take a NSAID daily, were faced with a 79 percent risk of developing cancer.
Additionally, those that suffer from chronic heartburn or Barrett’s should also steer away from spicy foods, especially found in meats. The acidity in spices and the fat from meat further agitates the esophagus and as well as the stomach and small intestine in some cases. Coffee and some fruits with a high citrus content can also have the same effect and should be avoided when necessary.
While April may be Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, knowing that heartburn is linked to esophageal cancer, should be top of mind for many of those who suffer from the condition all year long.
By CJ Johnson
The Society of Thoracic Surgeons
Esophageal Cancer Action Network