Esophageal cancer is on the rise. Main risk factor? Heartburn

April 1, 2013 | by

Esophageal cancer may not get the attention, or cause the fear, of other higher-profile cancers, but the threat is real – and growing. Experts predict almost 18,000 new diagnoses this year and more than 15,000 deaths.

The esophagus, the muscular tube from the throat to the stomach, is part of the human digestive system. Heartburn can increase the risk of cancer in that tube.

The esophagus, the muscular tube from the throat to the stomach, is part of the human digestive system. Heartburn can increase the risk of cancer in that tube.

“The incidence of the most common type of esophageal cancer in America (adenocarcinoma) has been increasing faster than any other cancer over the last 30 years,” says Jae Kim, M.D., interim chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at City of Hope. “No one knows the exact reasons for this, but we do know that heartburn is the main risk factor for this type of esophageal cancer.”

More on heartburn later. But first, some basics, courtesy of the National Cancer Institute. (And what better time than Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, in some states anyway.) The esophagus, part of the digestive tract, is a muscular tube through which food moves from the throat to the stomach. Esophageal cancer begins in cells in the inner layer of tissues lining this tube; over time it may spread into deeper layers and nearby tissues.

There are two types:

-The most common in this country is adenocarcinoma, which begins in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach, in cells that make and release fluids.

-Most common in other parts of the world is squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the esophagus’ flat cells, in the upper part of the esophagus.

Now back to heartburn, which is a symptom of acid reflux. This reflux occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Some people have the symptom of heartburn, some don’t. But over time, the acid can damage the esophageal tissues, which may in turn lead to adenocarcinoma.

Other risk factors for esophageal cancer are age (most people diagnosed with the disease are 65 and older), being male (men are three times as likely as women to be diagnosed with the disease), smoking, heavy alcohol use and, small surprise perhaps, obesity. Now for the symptoms: a tendency for food to get stuck in the esophagus, pain when swallowing, pain in the chest or back (behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades, hoarseness or a chronic cough, vomiting and coughing up blood.

Treatment doesn’t have to be as grueling as you might fear, says Kim.

“Newer treatments allow us to treat early stage cancers endoscopically, without the need for incisions,” he says. “More advanced cancers can be treated with robotic surgery, with faster recovery than traditional surgery.”

The important factor, as with most cancers, is to get diagnosed and treated as early as possible.


  • Michael Kenard

    If I have this type of cancer i will most certainly see you guys for treatment thank you for your outstanding service to the ppl you have helped including my friends dad Robert Stewart Pope the III. god bless.

  • PIERRE FOURNIER

    olive oil is the solution help heartburn

    • Norman Buller

      How much per day do you take. Do you take it with meals.

  • gretchen

    what is the test for esophageal cancer diagnosis?

    • Laurence Francis

      I had a swallowing problem and the doctor suggested an endoscopy. They found a not insignificant mass( aka tumor) and further scans confirmed it was cancer. While esophageal cancer is still relatively rare, I got that diagnosis and should add I had not been obese…not a heartburn suffered, not a smoker and only consumed alcohol at weddings and such. All my "healthy eating habits" including almost daily salads with just olive oil as a dressing really had not mattered in my case. I guess happy ending here…within 6 months of that swallowing problem which I now know was reflux…I went thru a month of radiation , chemo and had a rather complex surgery ( 5 hours with a 9 day hospital stay) and all cancer was removed. I am now back to walking my normal 2.5 miles a day and learning new eating habits as the surgery was an esohpagectomy so now I eat smaller portions at a time. Not all heartburn is a sign of cancer. I am thankful to the world of oncologists and surgeons who do amazing things to help save cancer patients.

      • Nancy Unser

        Laurence,
        Read your account with esophageal cancer and congratulate you on your progress. My husband was diagnosed last August, went thru the radiation and chemo treatments and was pronounced cancer free in December. His oncologist recommended surgery. We went to Mayo in Jax. He had two surgeries. The first was to prepare the stomach two weeks prior to the esohpagectomy. He was in ICU at May for 7 days. The new esophagas was excellent. He was able to eat. The surgeries did what they were supposed to do. However, three days after discharge from Mayo, he was hospitalized with respiratory problems and passed away three days later. He was almost 80 years old. I write this to let you know about a wonderful support group near Mayo in Jacksonville headed up by Mary Helen Duggar. Mary Helen and her team of former diagnosed patients can offer you great support. They have gone thru everything you have and may be of help to you with questions. Her email is: mhpduggar@gmail.com and her phone number is (904) 374-4599. She may be out of town this month but you can call Jack Brady at (904)8109746. Nancy Unser.

  • Shirley Spurgeon

    My doctor told me caffeine causes heartburn. I've cut down quite a bit on coffee and sodas and have noticed a decline in acid re-flux attacks.

  • janice

    OK, so why do so many people have heartburn? and Acid Reflux. Doctors who study the thyroid say its due to low thyroid. With low thyroid, which affects the whole body metabolism, everything slows down , including digestion, circulation, nutrient delivery, detox, etc. Muscles can be affected too, and valves dont close properly causing acid reflux. Ok, so why low thyroid? It can be caused by metals especially, from vaccines, and tooth fillings, and also from chlorine, soy, fluoride, bromine, vegetable oils, lack of minerals. You can test yourself by taking your temperature. Read Stephen Langer, MD. His book is Solved: the Riddle of Illness. Also look at

  • John Martinez

    I have acid problemns and for years I have been taking Ranitidine 150mg. I have also been checked with a scope about 2 years ago. How often should I have this procedure done? One more thing I am over weight how much does being over weight effect acid reflex.
    Thank You

  • Kathryn Levesque

    The public also needs awareness of head and neck cancer in general. My daughter died of cancer which began in her right tonsil. It was first dx'd as a canker sore but proved to be cancer after further investigation. She had the most advanced treatment possible including surgery, radiation and chemo. It returned, within a few years, however, this time attacking her tongue. That was the beginning of the end, unfortunately. Be aware, this is not that uncommon and be very careful regarding examinations both medical and dental.