How Is Heartburn Linked To Esophageal Cancer?

Each year, millions of Americans experience heartburn.  Occasional heartburn can occur from eating a spicy meal or indulging in too much fatty or fried food.   For the most part, occasional heartburn typically does not require  any cause for concern.

According to the American College of Gastroenterology “more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month and some studies have suggested that more than 15 million Americans experience heartburn symptoms each day.”

Unfortunately, many of these Americans who experience heartburn on a regular basis are not aware of the dangerous link between chronic heartburn and the threat of esophageal cancer, the nation’ s fastest growing cancer, with over a “733% increase between 1973 and 2014, according to government data, climbing an average of 5.4% per year during the 41-year period.” (GastroEndoNews.com)

Sometimes Heartburn Isn’t Just An Inconvenience™

Heartburn is defined as “a painful burning feeling in your chest or throat. It happens when stomach acids back up into your esophagus, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach.” via MedlinePlus.gov.

Those who suffer from chronic heartburn, heartburn that is severe and occurs more than twice weekly, may have Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, known more commonly as GERD.

The National Cancer Institute defines GERD as “the backward flow of stomach acid contents into the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach).”  The sensation of “heartburn” or the burning feeling in the chest or throat, is actually a symptom of GERD, also known as Gastric Reflux, Esophageal Reflux or Acid Reflux Disease.

It is important to note, however, that GERD patients may not have heartburn at all.


What Causes GERD?

A weakened lower esophageal sphincter (LES).  

The LES is a ring of muscle that opens to allow food and drink to pass into the stomach from the mouth.

When food or drink is swallowed, it enters into the throat and travels down the esophagus.  A normal functioning LES opens to allow food and drink into the stomach and then closes back up to keep those contents inside the stomach to allow for digestion. When the LES is damaged, it becomes weak and relaxes, allowing stomach acids and contents to flow back up into the esophagus.  This “reflux” symptom is known as heartburn.


Overtime, this reflux of stomach acids can cause damage to the lining of the esophageal wall and can cause the cells to become abnormal.  This change in the cells, which line the lower part of the esophageal wall, is known as Barrett’s esophagus, a sometimes precancerous condition.

Barrett esophagus is defined by the  National Cancer Institute as “a condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have changed or been replaced with abnormal cells that could lead to cancer of the esophagus.”


There are no known causes of esophageal cancer, however, there are risk factors which may increase the chance of developing esophageal cancer.  Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer.

GERD and Barrett esophagus are two of the risk factors associated with esophageal cancer.   Other risk factors include, but are not limited to, tobacco use, obesity and heavy alcohol use.

Be Proactive About Your Esophageal Health

It is imperative that people who suffer from heartburn more than twice weekly speak to their doctor.   There are no routine or standard screening tests for esophageal cancer.  Unfortunately, symptoms, such as difficulty swallowing or food getting stuck, typically appear once the cancer has advanced and becomes difficult to treat.

Chronic and severe acid reflux can significantly damage the esophagus.  Not only can it increase the risk of esophageal cancer, but it can lead to other serious health problems, such as ulcers, bleeding and scarring.

Lifestyle changes can help to reduce GERD symptoms.  Click here for some tips to control your acid reflux.

Some medications help to temporarily alleviate GERD symptoms.  However, these medications are typically not intended to be taken for an extended periods of time.  Remember to read the label on these medications and consider the side effects.

Some patients may be candidates for nonsurgical, less invasive options to treat GERD.

As advocates for esophageal health and the prevention of esophageal cancer, we urge everyone suffering from chronic heartburn to consult a medical professional.  Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and options.

“I Have GERD! Now What?” RefluxMD’s Free E-Book

RefluxMD has put together a comprehensive e-book regarding Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease.  The book offers expert advice and education materials which will empower either you as the patient, or as a loved one of someone suffering from acid reflux disease.   This is a great tool to use in conjunction with receiving medical care from your physician or gastroenterologist.   This e-book is available for download on their website, click here.

Early Detection Saves Lives!

There is good news!  The National Cancer institute states that “when esophageal cancer is found very early, there is a better chance of recovery. Esophageal cancer is often in an advanced stage when it is diagnosed.  At later stages, esophageal cancer can be treated but rarely can be cured.”

Esophageal cancer is an aggressive malignancy and among the deadliest cancers in the Untied States.  There is a poor survival rate associated with esophageal cancer.

Unfortunately, symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, typically occur once the cancer has become advanced.   There are also no standard or routine screenings to detect esophageal cancer in its earliest stages.

Millions of Americans suffer from heartburn and many of them suffer from heartburn more frequently.  While the majority of people with chronic heartburn will not go on to have esophageal cancer, there is a growing number of people who are diagnosed with esophageal cancer each year.

It is imperative that esophageal cancer be caught at the earliest possible stage in order to save lives!

Learn what tests are used to diagnose esophageal cancer by clicking here.

Join This Life-Saving Mission!

Become a part of our growing team of supporters.  Donate today to help raise awareness, support early detection efforts and fund research of esophageal cancer.

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1. National Cancer Institute: A Snapshot of Esophageal Cancer
 2. American Cancer Society: Esophagus Cancer
 3. WebMD, Complications of Untreated Heartburn and GERD 
 4.  MedlinePlus.gov
 5. American College of Gastroenterology
 6. Management of Barrett’s oesophagus and intramucosal oesophageal cancer: a review of recent development, Shanmugarajah Rajendra and Prateek Sharma, NCI, 2012
 7. American College of Clinical Oncology
8. RefluxMD
9. Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News


The Salgi Esophageal Cancer Research Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) non profit organization as recognized by the Internal Revenue Service.

Content found on Salgi.org is for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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