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Esophageal Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

There are many different causes and risk factors for esophageal cancer. Sometimes, a person with no known risk factors can be diagnosed with the disease. However, there are certain factors that can put you at greater risk.                 

Certain causes and risk factors are beyond your control. Some are within your power to control, whether it’s quitting smoking or eating a healthier diet.

Causes and risk factors for esophageal cancer include:

  • Age: The risk of developing esophageal cancer increases with age, with most cases occurring in individuals age 65 and older.
  • Gender: Men are three times more likely than women to develop some form of esophageal cancer.
  • Heartburn: Individuals with chronic heartburn, also called reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer, even if it hasn't progressed to Barrett's esophagus.
  • Barrett's esophagus: A condition caused by chronic reflux of acid from the stomach into the lower esophagus, Barrett's esophagus occurs from a change in the cells of the esophagus. Barrett's esophagus raises a person's risk of adenocarcinoma, but not everyone with Barrett's esophagus will develop cancer of the esophagus
  • Tobacco: Use of tobacco in any form raises a person's risk of esophageal cancer. The longer a person uses tobacco, the greater the risk. More than half of all squamous cell esophageal cancers are linked to smoking.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol consumption may also increase the risk of esophageal cancer, increasing more with the number of drinks regularly consumed. Combining smoking and drinking alcohol raises the risk of esophageal cancer much more than using either alone.
  • Weight: The risk of developing esophageal cancer is higher for people who are overweight or obese.
  • Diet: A diet high in fruits and vegetables is linked to a lower risk of esophageal cancer because fruits and vegetables provide a number of vitamins and minerals known to help prevent cancer.
  • Workplace exposure: Dry cleaning workers have a higher rate of cancer of the esophagus possibly because some of the chemicals used in dry cleaning may lead to a greater risk of this cancer. Breathing in certain other chemical fumes may also increase the risk.
  • Lye: Lye is found in strong cleaners, like drain cleaners, and it can burn and destroy cells. If a child drinks one of these cleaning liquids, the lining of the esophagus will scar and the child will have a higher risk of developing squamous cell cancer as an adult.
  • Achalasia: In this disease, the muscle at the bottom of the esophagus does not open to release food into the stomach, causing the lower end of the esophagus to expand and food to collects rather than moving into the stomach. Over time, this raises the risk for development of squamous cell cancer.
  • Tylosis: This is a rare, inherited disease that causes extra skin to grow on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. People with tylosis are at a very high risk for esophageal cancer and should be monitored regularly by a doctor.
  • Esophageal webs: A web is an abnormal bulge of tissue that causes the esophagus to narrow. This leads to the feeling that food is stuck when swallowed. People who have esophageal webs may have a syndrome that causes other symptoms, too, including problems with the tongue, fingernails, spleen and other organs. About one in 10 people with this syndrome will develop cancer of the esophagus.
  • Stomach bacteria: A certain bacteria called H. pylori can cause many stomach problems, including ulcers and even some types of cancer. Doctors can treat H. pylori infection with antibiotics plus a drug to stop stomach acid. People who have had treatment to rid the stomach of H. pylori are at an increased risk of developing adenocarcinoma.
  • Other cancers: Individuals who have had certain other cancers such as lung, mouth or throat cancer may have a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Esophageal Cancer: Other Possible Risk Factors

Other lifestyle habits that may increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer include:

  • Overeating, which may lead to obesity
  • Drinking a lot of very hot liquids
  • A diet high in processed meat (example: deli meats, hot dogs, bacon), though this has not yet been proven