(dailyRx News) It might begin as occasional heartburn. Later, the heartburn becomes more consistent. Then it becomes more serious as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Scientists have uncovered new clues about whether cancer is the next step on this road.
Esophageal cancer more commonly develops when GERD and inflammation band together to do their devil's work.
The esophagus is a 10-inch tube that connects the throat with the stomach. It's right behind your breastbone and is a critical part of digestion.
With GERD, the muscle that connects the stomach and esophagus is weak and can't keep stomach contents from flowing back (reflux) into the esophagus.
Having GERD is a known risk factor for esophageal cancer, a particularly bad and usually fatal disease that's been on the rise now since the 1970s.
Add to this mix inflammation of the delicate tissue that lines the esophagus and you have a prime environment for cancer to bloom and grow.
Lead study author, Rune Erichsen, MD, of Aarhus University Hospital, told dailyRx in an email, "The take home message from our study is that esophagitis [inflammation of the lining of the esophagus] seems to be important in the development of esophageal adenocarcinoma in patients with GERD."
Interestingly, though, the absolute risk of even someone who has GERD going on to develop esophageal cancer is still relatively low.
For this study, researchers used Danish medical registries and studied information about nearly 34,000 people who were treated for GERD between 1996 and 2008.
Of the nearly 26,000 people who had GERD, 37 individuals went on to develop esophageal cancer after 7.4 years. That's not a lot, but it's a great deal more than cancer cases than experienced by the group without inflammation. After 4.5 years. of the 7,655 patients with GERD only, one person developed cancer.
Dr. Erichsen says "that even though GERD patients with esophagitis had a two-fold increased adenocarcinoma risk, the absolute risk of developing adenocarcinoma was very low (after 10 years only 0.24% developed adenocarcinoma).
"The fact that the absolute risk was found to be low is very important for GERD patients," Dr. Erichsen continued. "In addition, our results are important for the understanding of adenocarcinoma development which together with emerging evidence from other studies hopefully will help GERD patients in the future."
This study appeared in the May 2012 issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, the official journal of the American Gastroenterological Association.
This research was funded by the Clinical Epidemiology Research Foundation, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark and the Karen Elise Jensen foundation. The authors disclosed no conflicts.