Heartburn May Fuel Throat Cancer

Acid reflux is another suspected culprit in the disease

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption have been linked to the development of throat cancer. Frequent heartburn also has been added to that list of potential culprits in the disease.

A new study suggests that chronic heartburn makes non-smokers and non-drinkers 1.7 times more likely to get throat cancer than individuals who neither smoke, drink nor suffer from heartburn.

"Ask your doctor about heartburn's possible links to cancer."

Scott Langevin, PhD, MPH, a cancer researcher at Brown University in Providence, RI, was the lead author of the study.

It compared 631 throat cancer patients with roughly 1,200 cancer-free people who all lived in the greater Boston area.

Based on what members of both groups self-reported to researchers during two phases of research that ended in June 2011, researchers categorized frequency of heartburn among study participants as “never,” “rare” or “often/extreme.”

Those who never took medication for heartburn, who took only antacids, who took home remedies or who took prescription drugs for the problem also were placed in their respective categories.

Researchers considered such additional factors as study participants’ level of education, body weight, smoking and drinking habits.

According to the researchers, as much as 20 percent of people in Western societies, or the developed nations, suffer from heartburn, a burning sensation in the throat caused when stomach acids seep outside their normal position and surge toward the head and neck. Heartburn has been linked to diet, obesity and other lifestyle choices.

After adjusting for several factors including patient demographics, smoking, and alcohol consumption, researchers concluded that acid reflux, as heartburn is also called, is an independent risk factor for the development of throat cancer

Several previous studies also have established such a link, researchers wrote, but they used a much smaller pool of participants. Some of those studies had as few as 40 study participants.

Despite their conclusions, the researchers led by Langevin said more studies in this area are needed. Any upcoming studies should explore, among other hypothetical possibilities, whether antacids have cancer-fighting effects, researchers wrote.

The researchers also noted several shortcomings of their work: heartburn does not always have obvious symptoms such as that burning sensation in the chest. They did not factor that reality into their study.

Also, the study asked participants to discuss their entire history of heartburn. But it did not take into account the possibility that, in some cases, throat cancer that had not yet been diagnosed might have triggered the heartburn.

The National Cancer Institute and National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences funded the study.

Its authors did not report any financial gain or investment that would influence study design or outcomes.

The study was published May 23 in the Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention journal.

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Review Date: 
May 22, 2013
Last Updated:
August 12, 2013