Chronic heartburn linked to one of the fastest-growing cancers in America


by Stuart Spechler, MD, AGAF, FACG

Apr 22, 2019

We all experience the occasional bout of heartburn, or acid reflux, especially after a particularly large or fatty meal. Although uncomfortable, that burning sensation in your chest likely doesn’t cause much concern.

But did you know that heartburn has actually been linked to esophageal cancer?

Chronic heartburn, often caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, puts you at risk of developing a type of esophageal cancer called adenocarcinoma — one of the fastest-growing cancers in America.

Related: Eat this, not that, to avoid holiday heartburn

The heartburn cancer connection

GERD causes acid made by the stomach to splash backward into the esophagus, resulting in a variety of uncomfortable symptoms, including frequent heartburn, nausea, bad breath, regurgitation and respiratory problems.

Over time, GERD causes your esophagus to become inflamed, increasing your risk for a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, a known risk factor for esophageal cancer that affects the tissue of your esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus typically does not cause any symptoms beyond those associated with GERD and can therefore often goes undiagnosed.

So, when should you worry about heartburn being a sign of something more serious? Here’s when acid reflux might warrant a visit to your doctor:

  • If your heartburn does not respond quickly to over-the-counter medications.
  • If you also are experiencing difficulty swallowing.
  • If you are losing weight for no apparent reason.
  • If you are having frequent fevers.
  • If you are passing black stools.

Innovating better screening and treatment options

At the Center for Esophageal Diseases at Baylor University Medical Center, my colleagues and I have been conducting research to further our understanding of Barrett’s esophagus and its relationship to esophageal cancer, and to help innovate better treatment techniques. With esophageal cancer on the rise, it’s critical that we discover better ways to address Barrett’s esophagus, the primary risk factor for this type of cancer.

For example, our recent studies have shown that GERD causes the cells that line Barrett’s esophagus to burrow into deeper layers of the esophagus, where they can escape detection and be shielded from endoscopic treatment. We are now actively studying how to prevent this burrowing process, so that we can identify worrisome changes early on in Barrett’s esophagus.

Understanding how this condition develops and acts over time can help improve our ability to eradicate Barrett’s esophagus once and for all — and decrease people’s risk of esophageal cancer.

While this type of esophageal cancer is rare, the context for developing this cancer should still be on your radar. This is particularly the case if you experience regular heartburn and you are 50 years of age or older. When Barrett’s esophagus is identified early and treated properly, cancer can be prevented.

If you’re at all concerned about your heartburn, don’t procrastinate. Find a digestive specialist near you.

About the Author

Stuart Spechler, MD, AGAF, FACG, is a gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Center for Esophageal Diseases. Dr. Spechler specializes in diseases of the esophagus, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, Barrett's esophagus, eosinophilic esophagitis and esophageal motility disorders such as achalasia. He attended medical school at Boston University School of Medicine in Massachusetts. His internship, residency and GI fellowship took place at Boston VA Medical Center.

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