Heartburn and Cancer: Is There a Connection?

Heartburn is the result of acid reflux, which occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, a tube in your throat that moves food from the mouth to the stomach. Heartburn sufferers describe the condition as a burning sensation in the chest behind the breastbone. It's often worse when lying down or bending over, and usually occurs at night or after eating. When heartburn persists and interferes in your normal routine, physicians call it gastroesophageal reflux disease, better known as GERD. GERD can damage your esophagus and cause serious complications, such as esophageal cancer.

The good news is that esophageal cancer is rare. The bad news is the incidence of esophageal cancer is on the rise, and oncologists usually don't diagnose it until it's at an advanced stage when it's difficult to treat. GERD and a condition called Barrett's Esophagus are the only known risk factors for esophageal cancer.

Barrett's Esophagus occurs when repeated exposure to stomach acid damages the cells in the lower esophagus. You'll usually find this condition in people who have had GERD for 10 or more years. Only a small number of people with Barrett's Esophagus will go on to develop esophageal cancer. To date, there's no evidence that current treatment options for Barrett's Esophagus, including radiofrequency ablation (an image-guided technique that heats and destroys cells) and antireflux surgery, reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.

Furthermore, GERD symptom severity is not a good indicator of risk of esophageal cancer. In fact, the risk of developing esophageal cancer is higher in those patients for whom medical treatment effectively controls GERD and they have few, if any, symptoms.

Researchers are studying whether heartburn is also a risk factor for developing cancer of the larynx (voice box).

Believe it or not, recurring heartburn may also be a sign of ovarian cancer. Patients and physicians often do not link common symptoms like heartburn to ovarian cancer, when in fact, many signs of ovarian cancer manifest as disturbances in the gastrointestinal tract.

If you suffer from frequent heartburn, visit your physician for an evaluation. While GERD or Barrett's Esophagus does raise your risk for cancer, the risk is still low and should not be cause for alarm.



National Cancer Institute. "What you need to know about esophageal cancer." Web. 21 November 2008.

National Cancer Institute. "What you need to know about cancer of the larynx." Web. 21 January 2011.

Barclay, Laurie MD. "Severe GERD Symptoms Inversely Linked to Esophageal Cancer." Medscape Medical News. Web. 21 July 2011.