Esophageal Cancer Risk and Your Family History

Is your risk of esophageal cancer impacted by your family’s medical history?  

It is common for family members of those diagnosed with esophageal cancer to wonder if they, too, will be affected by the cancer.  Esophageal adenocarcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer in the United States and is also the fastest growing cancer in both the US and the western world.

A study conducted by a researcher in Sweden found that the risk of esophageal cancer [adenocarcinoma] is 3.5 times higher in people with a parent diagnosed with esophageal cancer (overall).

Unfortunately, the researcher warns in their findings that “because of the limited number of familial cases, the results should be interpreted with caution.”  As with many other factors concerning esophageal cancer research, there isn’t a good deal of research into a genetic or hereditary link to esophageal cancer.

An article written by Ryan Smith and Eric Shinohara of The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania stated: “there is not a clear link between a family medical history of esophageal cancer and an individual’s risk of developing esophageal cancer.”

However, researchers do know one way that your family’s medical history can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer: familial risk factors.

How do “familial” risk factors play key role in esophageal cancer?

A familial risk factor is a risk factor that is shared by your family members.  For instance, your father had chronic acid reflux which puts you at higher odds of also having chronic reflux.  Research so far indicates that your chance of developing esophageal cancer is impacted by these risk factors that you “share” with family members who have had esophageal cancer.   The same could hold true even for family members who have not been diagnosed with esophageal cancer but have some or all of the risk factors associated with esophageal cancer.

“There is no generally accepted relationship between esophageal cancer and heredity. Having said that, there are clearly other factors, such as obesity, smoking and alcohol use that could be related to what we might call environmental exposures,” says Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer of Cancer Control Science at the American Cancer Society.

What are some risk factors of esophageal cancer?

It is very important to note that having a risk factor does not automatically indicate that one will have esophageal cancer or other diseases.  Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that one will never be diagnosed with esophageal cancer or other diseases.  Risk factors increase your chances of developing esophageal cancer; especially if you have more than one of the following risk factors.  The severity and length of time that one has a risk factor also increases the risk of developing esophageal cancer.   Below are some of the risk factors associated with esophageal cancer:

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), also known as Acid Reflux Disease, or Chronic heartburn

Barrett’s esophagus

Obesity

Poor diet

Smoking and/or use of tobacco products

Excessive alcohol consumption

Environmental exposures

Age and gender have also been considered risk factors, as men who are older than 55 are more likely to have esophageal cancer than younger ages and all ages for women.  We cringe when we read these statements.  Especially since we meet and hear of so many people who are young and old, male or female who have been diagnosed or have passed away from esophageal cancer.

We can’t stress this enough:  Esophageal cancer does not discriminate!  Unfortunately, esophageal cancer diagnoses have increased over 600% in the past decades and are increasingly affecting all ages and genders.

Early detection of esophageal cancer saves lives!

If you have any of the risk factors listed above or are concerned that you may be at risk of esophageal cancer, please do not wait to speak to your doctor.  The earlier esophageal cancer is caught, the better the treatment options and the higher the chances are for survival.

Currently, there are no standard or routine screenings to detect esophageal cancer; therefore, we urge you to be proactive about your health!  If you feel that you should be screened, speak to your physician or gastroenterologist.  Insist that you receive screening.  If you have to get a second opinion, do so! You are your own best advocate!

What are some screening methods for esophageal cancer?

The following are some of the more commonly used methods of detecting esophageal cancer and other abnormalities of the esophagus, stomach and other parts of the digestive system.

Upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy:  

During this procedure, a doctor uses an endoscope to see the upper GI tract, which consists of the esophagus, stomach and the first part of the small intestine.  An endoscope is a lightweight, flexible, hollow instrument equipped with a lens which allows the doctor to see these internal parts.  Examining the esophagus, the doctor is looking for any abnormalities and/or inflammation, areas which have been irritated, abnormal growths or cancer. The procedure is generally preformed while a patient is under sedation.  Sedation is not required for all patients, as some receive minimal to no sedation.

Doctors utilize endoscopy procedures to also detect ulcers, abnormal growths in the stomach or first part of small intestines, bowel obstructions or hiatal hernias.  There are small risks associated with an endoscopy, such as bleeding, tissue infection and tears in the gastrointestinal tract.  These are rare instances, as the Mayo Clinic reports that the latter occurs in about three to five time out of every 10,000 upper endoscopies.

Barium Swallow X-Ray:

Also known as an esophagram, an upper gastroentestional series of X-rays used to examine the esophagus for any abnormal conditions.  This test requires patient to drink a thick liquid that temporarily coats the lining of the esophagus.  This will highlight the lining of the esophagus clearly on the X-rays to help better detect any abnormality.

Biopsy

If during an endoscopy, doctors find any suspicious tissue, they will use an endoscope (defined above) passed down the throat into the esophagus to collect a sample of the tissue.  This tissue sample is then sent to a laboratory which will look for cancer cells.

If you are experiencing frequent heartburn or any of the other risks, consult your doctor and be sure to also share this message with your family and friends who may be at risk.

Let’s work together to change the statistics regarding esophageal cancer! 

Our mission is to raise awareness and encourage early detection.  We achieve this by providing you with the information that you and/or others might be at risk need to make an educated decision about getting screened.   If you would like to join this mission by contributing to awareness and research funding for esophageal cancer, please click here.  Also, remember to join us on Facebook to spread the word and save lives!

 
 
 
 
 The information you find here is for educational purposes only and should not replace the medical care from a doctor or physician. 
 
Sources:
1. Endoscopy Sedation, Anaesthetic sedation for gastrointestinal endoscopy, Dr G M Andrew, BA (Hons), MBBS, Gastro.net.au
2. Esophageal Cancer; Tests and Diagnosis, MayoClinic staff, 15 May 2014 MayoClinic
3. The role of endoscopy in the assessment and treatment of esophageal cancer. American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, Gastrointestinal Endoscopy Volume 77, No. 3 : 2013, 
4. Familial risk for esophageal cancer: an updated epidemiologic study from Sweden. Ji J, Hemminki K. Department of Bioscience at Novum, Karolinska Institute, Huddinge, Sweden. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2006 Jul;4(7):840-5. Epub 4 May 2006. 
5. Esophageal Cancer: The Basics, Ryan P. Smith, MD and Eric T. Shinohara, MD, The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 25 January 2012 
6. Esophageal Cancer in the Family, EverydayHealth.com, Diana Rodriguez | Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH, Last Updated: 19 February 2009 with quotes from Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer of Cancer Control Science at the American Cancer Society. 
7. What are the risk factors for cancer of the esophagus?, American Cancer Society, Last revised: 22 April 2014 
8. Oesophageal cancer risk factors Cancer Research UK, Last Updated: 21 May 2014 
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