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Heartburn may predict throat cancer

People who suffer from frequent heartburn may be at increased risk of developing cancer of the throat and vocal cords finds new US study
By
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed
man holding his stomach in pain

23rd May 2013 - People who regularly get heartburn may be at increased risk of developing cancer of the pharynx (throat) and larynx (vocal cord), and antacids may offer some protection.

The new research, conducted by Brown University and published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, analysed data from 631 people with cancer of the throat and vocal cord and compared them with 1,234 people without cancer. The researchers found that gastric reflux (also called acid reflux), which causes heartburn, may be a risk factor for these types of cancer.

"People without a history of heavy smoking or drinking who have experienced frequent heartburn during their lifetime are 78% more likely than those who have never had it to develop cancer of the throat or vocal cord," Scott Lagevin, the lead author of the study tells BootsWebMD by email. "This increased risk may be reduced by including simple over-the-counter antacids as part of the heartburn treatment."

The study

Gastric reflux is a condition in which stomach acids rises up into the gullet because the valve that separates the stomach contents from the gullet is faulty.

Although earlier research had found a link between gastric reflux and cancers of the throat and vocal cord, the studies were either small or they failed to take into account other things that may have caused the cancer, such as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption.

This is the first large study that takes known all the known risk factors into account.

The researchers enrolled 468 people with throat cancer, 163 people with cancer of the vocal cord and 1,234 people without cancer (the "controls"). The subjects were asked to complete a questionnaire that provided detailed information on their alcohol and tobacco use, personal and family cancer history, history of heartburn, and other things that might have increased their risk of developing cancers of the throat or vocal cord. They also took blood samples of all the participants to see if they'd ever been infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Previous studies have shown that some head and neck cancers are associated with HPV infections.

The researchers found that among people who were neither heavy smokers nor heavy drinkers, having frequent heartburn was associated with a 78% increased risk of developing cancers of the throat and vocal cords. They also found that among the people who suffered from regular heartburn, those who use antacids had a 41% lower risk of developing cancers of the throat and vocal cord when compared with people who had never taken heartburn medication.

When analysing the data, the researchers took into account age, gender, race, body-mass index, smoking, alcohol consumption, and previous infection with HPV.

Antacids

So why do antacids seem to offer this protection? "It is not entirely clear at this point," says Mr Lagevin. "More studies are needed to replicate our findings and help us to better understand how this could work.  We have hypothesised 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."

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