Each year around 60 percent of adults experience heartburn, where stomach acid enters your esophagus, causing pain. While your acid reflux is most likely caused by lifestyle factors, such as smoking, obesity, excess alcohol or eating trigger foods, it’s important not to ignore persistent heartburn. The repeated action of acid on your esophagus can lead to cell changes, known as Barrett’s Esophagus, which increases your risk of esophageal cancer. Additionally, if you have heartburn for at least three weeks, this may signal a sinister cause of your indigestion, as persistent acid reflux is sometimes a symptom of cancer. Read on to discover how your heartburn could be a possible sign of cancer affecting your esophagus, stomach or pancreas.
Although esophageal cancer accounts for just one percent of cancer diagnoses in the US, this cancer is responsible for close to three percent of cancer deaths. The higher mortality rate may partly be explained by the fact that cancer of the esophagus has no symptoms in its early stages. As the cancer progresses, you may experience worsening heartburn, swallowing problems, a cough or hoarse voice, and weight loss. If you recognize any of these symptoms of esophageal cancer, it is essential that you visit your doctor, particularly if you smoke, drink heavily or are overweight, as these are risk factors for esophageal cancer. Your doctor will assess your risk of esophageal cancer and arrange tests to rule this out as a possible cause for your heartburn.
Although stomach cancer is another relatively uncommon cancer in America, awareness of the symptoms of gastric cancer aids early diagnosis and successful treatment. However, it’s easy to put the symptoms of stomach cancer down to another condition, as in its earlier stages, you are likely to experience indigestion, trapped wind and bloating. Once more advanced, stomach cancer symptoms include black stools, poor appetite and weight loss. While you should always report possible symptoms of gastric cancer to your doctor, if you smoke or have a diet high in salt and red meat, it is especially important to do so. Your physician can then refer you for tests to investigate whether your acid reflux is a sign of stomach cancer.
The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer in the US is just eight percent, as in around 80 percent of cases, the cancer has already spread beyond the pancreas at diagnosis. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer usually develop in its later stages, but the most common signs of pancreatic cancer include heartburn, abdominal and back pain, and unintentional weight loss. Other symptoms of pancreatic cancer to be aware of are altered bowel habits, nausea and vomiting, poor appetite, swallowing difficulties, fatigue and jaundice, where your skin and eyes take on a yellow tinge. You should always seek urgent medical assistance if you develop jaundice, but if you have indigestion accompanied by any of the other markers for pancreatic cancer, you should make an appointment with your doctor for further investigation.
Although heartburn usually has a simple explanation, ongoing problems with acid reflux, particularly if your indigestion occurs alongside other symptoms, should always be reported. The chances are you will not have cancer, but it is important to rule out this possible diagnosis.