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Heartburn not a big risk for oesophageal cancer

Contrary to popular belief, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), better known as heartburn, is not much of a risk factor for oesophageal cancer for most people.

Heartburn not a big risk for oesophageal cancer

Contrary to popular belief, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), better known as heartburn, is not much of a risk factor for oesophageal cancer for most people.

Acid reflux disease, characterised by the frequent rise of stomach acid into the oesophagus, is considered a relative risk for developing esophageal cancer, but the absolute risk is not known. Since it is a common condition, many people may be worried about their increased risk for developing cancer due to acid reflux. The two most frequently reported symptoms of this condition are heartburn and regurgitation, which is characterised by the effortless flow of fluid rising up the chest toward the mouth.

The researchers set out to estimate the incidence of new cases of oesophageal cancer in the large population of people with acid reflux symptoms. Using computer models based on data from a national cancer registry and other published research about acid reflux disease, only 5,920 cases of oesophageal cancer were found among those younger than 80 years old, with or without acid reflux disease, in the U.S. population in 2005.

The results showed that native Americans over 60 years old with regular acid reflux symptoms accounted for 36 percent of these cases. Women accounted for only 12 percent of the cases, regardless of age and whether or not they had acid reflux disease. People with no acid reflux symptoms accounted for 34 percent of the cases. Men under 60 years accounted for 33 percent of the cases while in younger men it is even lower. For women, the risk for the cancer was negligible, about the same as that of men for developing breast cancer, or less than 1 percent.

The researchers concluded that screening for oesophageal cancer should not be performed in men younger than age 50 or in women because of the very low incidences of the cancer, regardless of the frequency of acid reflux symptoms. However, in white men with weekly GERD over the age of 60, the incidence of oesophageal cancer is substantial and may warrant screening. But they warned that if patients are experiencing alarm symptoms such as trouble swallowing, unintentional weight loss, or vomiting, they should seek medical care immediately, as these symptoms could be due to a cancer already present in the oesophagus.
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