What are the risk factors for esophageal cancer?

Some common risk factors are:

  • Age - Esophageal cancer is more common in people aged 50 and older.
  • Gender - Esophageal cancer is more common in men than women.
  • Tobacco use - Use of tobacco in any form, including smokeless tobacco, can increase your risk of esophageal cancer, especially squamous cell cancer.
  • Race - Esophageal adenocarcinoma is more common in white men than men of other races, while squamous cell cancer of the esophagus is more common among blacks.
  • Excessive use of alcohol - Heavy drinking is usually defined as more than 14 drinks per week for men or more than seven for women.
  • Obesity - Being severely overweight increases your risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma.
  • Vitamin deficiencies - Some studies have linked esophageal cancer to deficiencies in beta-carotene, vitamin E, selenium or iron.
  • Ingestion of lye - Accidentally drinking cleaning liquids containing lye may increase your risk of squamous cell esophageal cancer, especially if the accident occurred in childhood.

Certain conditions can increase your risk, including:

  • Barrett’s esophagus - This precancerous condition is often linked with longstanding acid reflux disease and can cause heartburn, regurgitation, difficult swallowing, a chronic dry cough and hoarseness. If you’ve been diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, talk to your doctor about how to take care of yourself to help prevent esophageal cancer.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) - In GERD, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach does not work properly and allows acid and other stomach contents to leak back into the esophagus. Chronic inflammation of the esophagus can result. Severe GERD over many years increases your risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) - This group of viruses causes warts and increases the risk of certain kinds of cancer. It can be sexually transmitted. A vaccine is now available that can help prevent HPV if it’s given in early adolescence.
  • Achalasia - In this rare, chronic condition, the valve between the esophagus and stomach does not open properly. Food becomes backed up, which causes the esophagus to stretch and become enlarged.
  • Esophageal webs - These abnormal bands of tissue extend inward into the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow.

What can you do to prevent esophageal cancer?

Although there is no sure way to prevent esophageal cancer, you can take steps to reduce your risk:

  • Quit using tobacco - Smoking and other forms of tobacco use contribute to many health problems, including most cancers. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor.
  • Limit alcohol use - Quit drinking, or have no more than a drink or two each day.
  • Talk to your doctor about frequent reflux or heartburn - Treating chronic reflux, as in GERD, has been shown to help reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Maintain a healthy weight - Stay active and eat healthy foods in the right amounts. Your doctor can help you lose weight if needed.
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