Not Just Heartburn

Esophageal cancer often disguises itself as ordinary heartburn and is often masked by the use of antacids and other medications. Know when it’s time to stop popping the antacids and visit the doctor.

Heartburn occurs when contents of the stomach back up into the esophagus. The burning sensation comes from the hydrochloric acid created by the stomach for digestion.

Chronic Is Dangerous

Almost everyone has had some heartburn after meals and simply popped some antacids for relief. But chronic heartburn is something entirely different.

It’s estimated that about one third of North Americans suffer from chronic heartburn, known as acid reflux or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).

Left unchecked, GERD can develop into a pre-malignant condition called Barrett’s Esophagus. Constant exposure to stomach acids changes the cells of the esophagus so they begin to resemble the cells that line the stomach. According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, Barrett’s Esophagus is believed to increase the risk of developing cancer of the esophagus. 

Risk Factors

The exact causes of cancer of the esophagus are not known, but studies point to certain risks associated with this cancer:

  • Smoking is one of the major risks
  • Age. More people over the age of 60 seem to develop esophageal cancer
  • Sex. It’s more common in men than women.
  • Obesity is also a contributing factor
  • Chronic alcohol use, especially when combined with smoking.
  • Long-term irritation such as Barrett’s Esophagus
  • Other cancers: Patients with other head and neck cancers have an increased chance of developing esophageal cancer.

Recognizing Symptoms

Early esophageal cancer usually does not cause symptoms. But as the cancer develops the following symptoms may appear:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Severe weight loss
  • Pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades
  • Hoarseness or chronic coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing up blood

These symptoms may be caused by esophageal cancer or by other conditions. It is important to check with your doctor. Whatever you do, stop masking your heartburn with over-the-counter solutions.

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