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GERD Cancer Risks

  • GERD can cause esophageal cancer.
  • GERD-induced esophageal cancer is increasing at an alarming rate.
  • Identification of Barrett’s esophagus can allow early cancer detection and improved chance of cure.

Cancer Risks

Most of us think of heartburn as just a nuisance. It’s that uncomfortable feeling we experience after a meal or at bedtime. Most don’t give much concern to their occasional heartburn, but this and other symptoms are signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Many people ignore the fact that longstanding GERD has esophagus cancer risks.

What Are the GERD Cancer Risks?

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is caused when the valve between the swallowing tube (esophagus) and stomach malfunctions. The malfunctioning valve allows acid and stomach contents to back up into the esophagus causing the typical symptoms of burning and regurgitation. GERD can even cause; chronic cough, hoarseness, damage to tooth enamel, worsening of asthma or emphysema, and sleep disturbances. Many patients do not even realize that GERD is the underlying cause of their symptoms. Also the damaging effects of reflux can occur without any symptoms at all. Left untreated, GERD can lead to serious health problems, including esophagitis (inflammation of the lining of the esophagus), strictures (narrowing of the esophagus), swallowing difficulties and cancer.

A Call to Action for GERD Cancer Risks

Cancer of the lower esophagus is called adenocarcinoma and is caused by GERD. Its frequency is increasing at an alarming rate, faster that any solid tumor ever measured. In fact, this frequency has increased almost 800% since 1975 and some have referred to this as an epidemic.

The graph below illustrates the increase in the frequency of GERD-induced esophageal cancer compared to other cancers. The difference is dramatic. This year, there will be almost 25,000 cases of adenocarcinoma originating in the lower esophagus and most will die of this disease.

GERD Cancer Risks Rate Ratio (Relative to 1975)

Frequency of GERD Cancer Risks GraphGERD Cancer Risks Graph Legend

Once discovered, the overall death rate within 5 years of a diagnosis of esophageal cancer is 85-90%, while it is only approximately 20% for colon cancer! Even in the face of this information, we are doing little to address these GERD cancer risks. In a famous study done in 1999, the link between esophageal adenocarcinoma and GERD was established. In patients with GERD, the incidence of cancer was 8 times higher than those without GERD symptoms. It is undeniable that having GERD alone increases the risk of cancer significantly.

Facts about GERD Cancer Risks

  • The frequency of GERD induced esophageal cancer is increasing at a dramatic rate.
  • Esophageal Cancer is more common in men than women.
  • While GERD is the major risk factor, obesity and smoking further increase cancer risk. The incidence of esophageal cancer also increases with how long symptoms have been experienced.
  • Esophageal cancer is lethal; 85-90% of patients die of their disease.
  • If discovered early, cure rate can be as high as 90%.

More Information about GERD Cancer Risks

Over the years a lot has been learned. A precancerous change in the cells lining the esophagus called Barrett’s esophagus is present in 10-15% of people with GERD. Barrett’s carries with it a risk of cancer approximately 100 times that of the general population. Studies have varied, but put another way, the yearly cancer risk is between 0.3-0.5% per year. Barrett’s esophagus is diagnosed by endoscopy and taking biopsies (small tissue samples) of areas of abnormal appearing tissue from the lining of the esophagus. We also know that if Barrett’s esophagus is diagnosed and endoscopies are performed about every 3 years (time interval recommendations vary), if cancer develops it will be diagnosed very early with a cure rate of nearly 90% compared to the overall cure rate of 10-15%. Better yet, these early cancers can often be treated without surgery with the latest technological developments. It is the discovery of Barrett’s esophagus that identifies the population of people at risk for cancer.

There is no reason to expect this rise in GERD-induced esophageal cancer to abate. We know that the presence of GERD alone increases the chance of developing cancer, but Barrett’s esophagus is the particular condition “marking” cancer risk. If Barrett’s esophagus can be identified by endoscopy and biopsies, the likelihood is very high that a cancer will be found in an early stage, where cure can be expected.

The Good News

The message is that if you have GERD, particularly if your symptoms are longstanding and you have other risk factors noted above, discuss with your physician the possibility of getting an endoscopy performed. Although recommendations from various medical societies and physicians may differ, if YOU have GERD and are found to have Barrett’s esophagus and then go on to get cancer, the likelihood of cure from this otherwise lethal malignancy is good! Awareness and appreciation of this risk is very much under-appreciated. At the Heartburn Treatment Center, we understand that our patients have heard about reflux and esophageal cancer. A cancer risk assessment is a component of our comprehensive evaluation.

Today, make that decision to contact Dr. Nilesh Patel. Register for your Evaluation Appointment at one of our GERD treatment centers. If you would like to speak to someone about GERD cancer risks or its causes, symptoms or treatments please fill out our online contact us form.