A new study suggests that there may be a link between heartburn and certain cancers, such as throat cancer and vocal cord cancer. However the study also suggests that over the counter antacids can help reduce the cancer risk from heartburn.
The author of the study, Dr Scott Langevin, suggests: “Previous studies examining gastric reflux and cancers of the head and neck have generated mixed results, (Our study) is a large, population-based study with robust parameters that strongly suggests gastric reflux, which causes frequent heartburn, is an independent risk factor for cancers of the pharynx (throat) and larynx (vocal cord).”
Gastric reflux is commonly known as heartburn and is a result of stomach acids backing up into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest or throat. A number of things can cause heartburn, including excessive alcohol consumption, consumption of certain foods, and even pregnancy (where the baby puts weight on the stomach).
GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) and GORD (gastric reflux disease) are the terms given to people who have a more long term form of heartburn where mucosal damage is caused by stomach acid coming up into the esophagus.
With GERD, the protective barrier between the stomach and esophagus changes and the opening to the stomach stays abnormally relaxed, allowing stomach acid through. As the acid damages the cellular lining of the esophagus it can contribute to the risk of throat cancer forming according to the research.
The research looked at over 600 throat cancer and vocal chord cancer patients in the boston area and looked at the prevalence of heartburn related illnesses in those patients compared to another group of 1200 healthy individuals with no history of cancer.
The research used a questionnaire examined family history, smoking history, alcohol consumption and also tested for papillomavirus (HPV), which can raise the risk of oral cancers.
The study found that people with heartburn had a 78% increase risk of developing cancers of the vocal chord or throat if they were not heavy smokers or heavy drinkers. People suffering from heartburn, who took antacids, had a 40% reduced risk of cancer of the throat or vocal chords regardless of the presence HPV, heavy smoking or heavy drinking. Over the counter antacids were used in the study, so it is unknown whether prescription medications or home remedies would have the same protective effect.
The reason why antacids are so effective is unclear, the researchers saying: “We have hypothesized that by neutralizing the pH of the stomach acid reaching up into the throat, the antacids prevent chronic irritation and cellular damage that can eventually lead to cancer. However, anything that we offer at this time would be merely speculation.”
More studies will be required to understand the reasons why antacids are so useful in preventing cancer of the throat and vocal chords. Other risk factors for throat cancer include chewing tobacco, a poor diet and excessive alcohol consumption.