By Kay Quinn Healthbeat Reporter
St. Louis (KSDK) - It used to be smoking and drinking were the main risk factors for esophageal cancer.
But on this week's 8 Ways to Prevent Cancer segment, we take a look at how people with long-standing gastric reflux disease are now among the fastest growing segment of new patients.
"Esophageal Cancer can affect all demographics," said Dr. Stephen Edmundowicz with the Siteman Cancer Center. "But we tend to see more of the reflux-related esophageal cancer in Caucasian males in their fourth or fifth decade of life who've had long-standing reflux disease, many years."
But what's still a mystery is why gastric reflux disease has emerged as a condition that can irritate the lining of the esophagus enough to raise the risk of cancer.
"We don't really know that," said Dr. Edmundowicz. "We think reflux disease has evolved over the past several decades."
Esophageal cancer is definitely different here in the U.S. than in Asia, where it's considered an epidemic.
There, rates of the disease are 10 to 100 times higher, and most patients are found to have so-called squamous cell tumors.
But here in the U.S., doctors are seeing more reflux-related cases.
Some patients have a condition called Barrett's esophagus. It's caused by stomach acid splashing on the cells lining to esophagus and causing pre-cancerous changes.
"Certainly the forefront of prevention is screening," said Dr. Edmundowicz. "So if you have long standing reflux symptoms, you're taking Tums or over-the-counter antacids, if you're not getting relief from your disease, it would be very worthwhile to talk about this with your primary care physician and determine if it's appropriate for you to get an examination of your esophagus to determine if you have changes that could lead to cancer."