GERD also known as acid reflux, comes with many uncomfortable symptoms such as heartburn and difficulty swallowing. Currently, it is a condition that many Americans suffer from on a daily basis. But can GERD lead to cancer?
Today, I want to discuss what is GERD and esophageal cancer, what are the symptoms, how it’s diagnosed, how to treat it and how to prevent it.
What is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) happens when your stomach acid flows back into your esophagus, the tube connecting your mouth and stomach. This can cause acid reflux which irritates your esophagus lining to causing heartburn, difficulty swallowing, a lumpy sensation in your throat, regurgitating food and even chest pain. Most people have experienced the symptoms of GERD at some point in their lives, but an increasing number of people experience symptoms more regularly; Even as much as once or several times a week. GERD is more than an uncomfortable condition but can lead to further health problems. Most recently, doctors have found it can lead to esophageal cancer. (1)
Does GERD Lead to Esophageal Cancer?
When you experience GERD symptoms, the acid from your stomach comes back up into your esophagus that can damage your tissues and can increase your risk of adenocarcinoma, a form of esophageal cancer.
Stomach acid is meant to stay in your stomach. There is a lining inside your stomach that protects it from the acid. Your esophagus, however, doesn’t have that protective lining; thus allowing damage to occur from the acid moving back up.
Acid reflux can also lead to tissue damage called Barrett’s esophagus, which is a pre-cancerous condition. To protect your body, your esophagus creates a tissue that is similar to intestinal lining. This is not natural in this area and can turn into precancerous cells. People with Barrett’s symptoms have and increased your risk for esophageal cancer. (2) Having both GERD with Barrett’s esophagus significantly increases your chances of esophageal cancer versus if you’ve only had GERD. (3)
Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer (3, 4)
- Dysphasia (difficulty swallowing)
- Decrease in appetite, weight loss
- Bleeding in the esophagus with vomiting blood
- Increase in heartburn
- Increase in indigestion
Risk Factors for Esophageal Cancer
As we discussed, GERD and Barrett’s symptoms can increase your risk of esophageal cancer. There are also other factors (3, 4):
- Gender: men are three times more at risk for developing forms of esophageal cancer.
- Age: people over 55 have a higher risk.
- Tobacco: smoking cigarettes or cigars and chewing tobacco can increase your risk of many
forms of cancer.
- Alcohol: Drinking alcohol, especially in combination with smoking can increase your risk.
- Obesity: Obesity and being overweight causes a multitude of health problems.
- Diet: A diet high in processed meats, processed foods and overeating can increase your risk, while a diet rich in fruits and vegetables lowers your risk.
- Radiation: Radiation,treatment of your chest and upper abdomen, though a necessary medical treatment in some cases, can also increase your risk of certain cancers.
Diagnosis of Esophageal Cancer
If you experience any symptoms of esophageal cancer or have GERD, definitely schedule a visit to your doctor. Along with a physical exam and medical history, you will likely undergo endoscopy (a small fiberoptic scope placed in your esophagus under sedation) to examine your esophageal tissue. This may include a biopsy to examine a tissue sample.
Another test you may undergo is called barium swallow. The test includes drinking a chalky liquid then x-rays of your esophagus. If cancerous tissue is found, a CT scan may be required as well to ensure that the cancer hasn’t spread. (3, 4)
Treatment of Esophageal Cancer
Your treatment may include on or the combination of the following (4, 5, 7):
- Surgery: Often surgery is done with an endoscope to remove the tumor completely. If the cancer has spread, deeper layers of tissue and even sections of your lymph nodes or stomach may need to be removed.
- Radiation: Radiation is often used in combination with chemotherapy before or after surgery. It can be directed at cancer cells from inside and outside of your body.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a commonly used drug treatment for cancer that can be used before or after surgery as a stand-alone treatment or along with radiation.
- Controlling acid reflux: Regardless of your treatment, making necessary dietary and lifestyle changes to control your acid reflux is necessary to help treatment and prevent your cancer from returning or spreading.
Outlook with Esophageal Cancer:
Your prognosis greatly depends on the stage of your cancer and whether or not it has spread. Localized esophageal cancer, that hasn’t spread, has the best outlook with a 43 percent chance of a 5-year survival rate. Regional cancer, where spreading has happened through other parts of your body, has a 23 percent chance of a 5-years survival. Distant esophageal, cancer where the cancer has spread to parts of the body far from the esophagus, has only a 5 percent 5-year survival rate. Besides the stage of cancer, your personal outcome depends on many factors, including your treatment, you body’s response to treatment, overall health and lifestyle changes. (6)
How to Prevent Esophageal Cancer?
Though having GERD can increase your risk of esophageal cancer, you can take steps to decrease your chances of esophageal cancer and even improve your symptoms of GERD. (4, 5, 7)
- Losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight
- Quit smoking
- Quit drinking alcohol or drink in moderation
- Increase your fruit and vegetable intake
- Eliminate or lower your intake of processed meat and processed foods
- Waiting two hours to lie down after eating to prevent acid splashing up
- Regular check-ups with your doctor
If you experience symptoms of GERD, acid reflux or esophageal cancer, visit your doctor now. Early detection helps your medical team give you the best treatment possible, to decrease your risk of esophageal cancer and increase your chances of recovery.
Did you find this article helpful? Do you have any questions about GERD and esophageal cancer? Comment below. We want to hear from you.