Long-term heartburn could increase risk of oesophageal cancer – symptoms and treatment

Heartburn is a symptom that many people experience on a regular basis.

What many people don’t realise is that long-term heartburn can put them at risk for oesophageal cancer.

The oesophagus 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 oesophagus, which can lead to cancer.

Early symptoms of oesophageal cancer can include a cough that doesn’t get better, having a hoarse voice, loss of appetite, feeling tired or having no energy, or a pain in the throat – especially when swallowing.

In women in the UK, oesophageal cancer is the seventh most common cause of cancer death, and for men in the UK it’s the fourth most common cause of cancer death.

What is heartburn?

“Heartburn not only feels painful, but untreated acid reflux can lead to long-term health issues, including oesophageal cancer – so treating it is important,” warns WebMD.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a potentially serious condition that, untreated, can lead to oesophageal cancer.

Heartburn can be a symptom of GERD, which is a severe form of acid reflux.

“When patients come to me after they find out they have oesophageal cancer, the number one thing they say to me is, ‘I wish I had known that GERD is related to cancer,’” says Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) surgeon Daniela Molena, director of the Oesophageal Surgery Program.

“Most of them have had GERD for a long time, sometimes decades.”

Not everyone with GERD has the typical symptoms, which are heartburn and regurgitation soon after eating.

Up to one in five may have different symptoms, such as coughing or chest pain

What is GERD?

“Acid reflux happens when your stomach contents come back up into your oesophagus,” explains the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

The health site continued: “Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a more severe and long-lasting condition in which GER causes repeated symptoms or leads to complications over time.

“GERD commonly cause symptoms such as heartburn and regurgitation.

“GERD may develop when your lower oesophageal sphincter becomes weak or relaxes when it shouldn’t.”

Other risk factors for oesophageal cancer include:

Age – it’s most common in individuals aged 55 and older
Sex – three times higher in men
Tobacco and alcohol use
Barrett’s oesophagus (where the tissue lining the oesophagus is replaced by tissue similar to the intestinal lining)