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Esophageal Cancer

Rare Cancer Linked to Advanced Acid Reflux Disease

Americans who experience chronic symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) need to know about an advanced form of the disease that may increase their risk for esophageal cancer.

Barrett's Esophagus

The disease known as Barrett's esophagus causes abnormal tissue to form in the lower part of the esophagus. Research has shown that patients with this advanced form of GERD are up to 40 times more likely to get esophageal adenocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer that starts in glandular cells responsible for creating and secreting mucus from the esophagus.

The esophagus is a tube-shaped organ that carries food, liquids and saliva from the mouth to the stomach. Flow is controlled by sphincter muscles that automatically relax when a person swallows to allow substances to pass into the stomach. Most of the time, these muscles are contracted to prevent the stomach's contents from leaking back into the esophagus.

The real risk for developing Barrett's esophagus is in patients with chronic, symptomatic reflux. It's very difficult to determine who should undergo screening exams for esophageal cancer, though, because symptoms don't always coordinate reliably with the risk of developing Barrett's.

The belief is that the irritation caused by fluids backing up from the stomach into the lower section of esophagus may lead to Barrett's esophagus.

Although the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimates that just 1 percent of the 700,000 people diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus will develop esophageal adenocarcinoma, it is one of the most rapidly rising cancers diagnosed in the United States.

Esophageal Adenocarcinoma

Some symptoms of esophageal cancer are:

It is important to note that these symptoms usually do not occur until the cancer has advanced.

There are a couple of tests and procedures that are done if Barrett's esophagus or Esophageal Adenocarcinoma are suspected:

Early-intervention lifestyle changes can help control less severe cases of GERD. Here are some suggestions:

Antacids and other acid-blocking medications may help reduce the reflux symptoms; however, they do not eliminate the risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma.

This article originally appeared in UC Health Line (11/02/06), a service of the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center Public Relations Department and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2006.

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Last Reviewed: Feb 16, 2009

Sandra L Starnes, MD Sandra L Starnes, MD
Assistant Professor of Surgery
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati