By Amy Norton HealthDay Reporter
MONDAY, Feb. 22, 2021 (HealthDay News)
Researchers found that among more than 490,000 Americans aged 50 and up, those with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) had about twice the risk of developing cancers of the esophagus or larynx (also known as the voice box).
The condition is exceedingly common, affecting an estimated 20% of Americans, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Experts stressed that the absolute risk is low: The vast majority of people with GERD will never develop the cancers, all of which are fairly rare.
“Our findings should not alarm people diagnosed with GERD,” said Christian Abnet, a researcher with the U.S. National Cancer Institute who led the study.
Why would heartburn matter when it comes to cancer?
The esophagus is not used to the “caustic” substances dwelling in the stomach and small intestine, including acids and digestive enzymes, Abnet explained.
In fact, the NIH says, about 10% to 15% of GERD patients have reflux severe enough to cause abnormalities in the esophageal lining, known as Barrett’s esophagus. And of people with Barrett’s, the risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma is about 0.5% per year.
In the United States, he noted, the major drivers of the cancers studied here are smoking and heavy drinking.
“So avoiding those exposures is the most important preventive measure,” Abnet said.
The findings are based on more than 490,600 U.S. adults who were between the ages of 50 and 71 at the outset. Nearly one-quarter had GERD.
Over about 16 years, more than 900 participants were diagnosed with esophageal adenocarcinoma, while about 300 developed the squamous cell form. Meanwhile, 876 people were diagnosed with laryngeal cancer.
On average, Abnet’s team found, people with GERD were about twice as likely to develop any of the three cancers as people without GERD. That was after accounting for smoking, drinking habits and body weight.
GERD is the back up of stomach acid into the esophagus.
Peter Campbell, scientific director of epidemiology research at the American Cancer Society, called the study “solid.”
There are no standard screening tests for the cancers. But Campbell said people with GERD can be aware of the potential symptoms, which include: trouble swallowing, chest pain, hoarseness or voice changes, chronic cough and weight loss.
“It’s important to note that having those signs or symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean a person has cancer at one of these organ sites,” Campbell stressed.
But, he said, anyone with GERD who notices those symptoms should talk to their doctor.
Similarly, Abnet said people with GERD symptoms should ask their doctor about lifestyle changes and/or medications that could help.
As it happens, Abnet noted, those same measures can help curb the risks of many different types of cancer.
SOURCES: Christian Abnet, PhD, MPH, division of cancer epidemiology and genetics, U.S. National Cancer Institute, Rockville, Md.; Peter Campbell, PhD, scientific director, epidemiology research, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; Cancer, Feb. 22, 2021, online
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