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Can long-term acid reflux cause cancer?

The short answer: Yes, it can.

But, the path is more complex than some people might think.

Most patients diagnosed with the most common kind of esophageal cancer typically experience a series of noticeable changes that start with long-term acid reflux, said Dr. Deepa Shah, a gastroenterology specialist at HonorHealth.

The key is to see a specialist if you think your condition might be more serious than occasional heartburn.

A chain of events can start when longer-term acid reflux changes (and damages) the lining of the esophagus. If left untreated, abnormal cells can then develop in the esophageal tissue and turn into a condition known as Barrett's esophagus. These abnormal cells can turn into low-grade and high-grade dysplasia, which can eventually develop into esophageal cancer.

“With Barrett's esophagus, the key is to catch it early and prevent it from turning into dysplasia or cancer,” Shah said.

The good news is that the risk of esophageal cancer is low. Studies show that 0.1 to 0.4 percent of those with Barrett’s esophagus go on to develop cancer each year, according to Shah.

So, how does a person know if they have treatable acid reflux or if there is a more serious condition associated with Barrett's esophagus?

“It can affect people in different ways,” Shah said, adding that patients should also pay attention to the following risk factors:

• Have you had acid reflux for more than five years?

• Does over-the-counter medicine fail to control the acid reflux?

• Are you over 50?

• Do you smoke?

• Are you overweight or obese?

• Have you experienced an unexplained weight loss?

• Are you a male?

• Are you Caucasian?

• Do you have trouble swallowing solids and/or liquids?

Answering yes to a combination of those questions could mean you need to see your doctor. Get more information on cancer care at HonorHealth here.

“The good news is that we have a lot of therapies available now,” Shah said. “These have decreased the risk of esophageal cancer and that is an exciting development among gastroenterologists.”

One promising treatment, first used in 2005 and now the most common, blasts the diseased lining of the esophagus with heat energy. The old tissue is destroyed and replaced with new lining. There are minimum side effects, and the procedure has an extremely high patient success rate. This procedure is known as radiofrequency ablation.

For patients looking to control long-term acid reflux, Shah recommends taking an anti-acid medication or proton pump inhibitor.

“That probably should be followed by a physician as there can be side effects with that,” she said. “Other things that patients can do is lose weight if they are overweight and pay attention to their diet and exercise.”

Patients may also want to avoid foods that contain high amounts of acid or caffeine, avoid chocolate, eat dinner earlier, elevate their head when sleeping, and get other risk factors like diabetes and sleep apnea under control.

Explore cancer treatment resources available from HonorHealth.