Does Heartburn Cause Cancer?

I have 3 kids under the age of 5 (update: as of 2016, it’s 4 kids under the age of 7 now…).  So when I had the chance to go grocery shopping the other day all by myself, I jumped on it.  What a wonderful feeling, gliding lightly through the parking lot, feeling the breeze in my hair, noticing the trees preparing for spring.  Not having to mutter crazy things like “Please give that half-eaten sandwich back to the seagulls,” or “Of course we’ll say hi to the lobsters when we get inside.”  Sometimes, it’s the little things that bring the most joy…

illustration of human stomach cartoon character with heartburn disease

In any case, I was very much enjoying my mini vacation.  And since my attention was free to wander, I happened to see a bumper sticker I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.  The car parked next to me stated “Heartburn can cause Cancer.”  Being a nurse, I immediately wondered…is that true?

Being a master at using my 4-Step-Study Method, I almost as quickly realized “Yes!  Of course, that makes sense.”

Heartburn is the common name for Gastric Reflux, which is when stomach acid splashes out of the stomach and up into the opening of the esophagus.  Since splashing acid on healthy tissue is not generally a good thing, we would expect that chronic reflux could damage the esophageal cells over time.

Cell damage can take different forms, but ultimately there’s going to be some DNA damage happening.  In a healthy person, cells are pretty good at repairing minor damage to DNA.  In fact, those kinds of minor repairs are going on all the time in response to sunburns, x-rays, nuclear bombs…well, maybe not the last one.  But you get the idea:  radiation or physical damage to the cellular DNA can cause the cell to malfunction unless it is quickly repaired.  Good thing our cells have mechanisms in place to do this important work!

However…remember what you learned back in Pathophysiology?  How sometimes the DNA damage happens at just the wrong time, like immediately before the cell divides through mitosis?  In cases like that, the damaged DNA gets passed on to the daughter cells.  They’ve now become: a mutation (Cue scary music.  Or not.)

The more mutations that occur over time, the more likely that one of the mutations will cause the cell to act abnormally and become cancer.  These cancerous mutations typically fall into one of two categories:  1) they cause the cell to do something it’s not normally supposed to do, or 2) they fail to stop the cell from doing something wrong.  Either way, you’ve got cancer.

Back to that grocery store parking lot. Since chronic heartburn could cause significant damage to the esophagus over time, it made a lot of sense to me that those damaged cells could eventually turn cancerous.  When I got home, I googled heartburn and cancer just to “check my answer,” and sure enough:  chronic heartburn is a risk factor for esophageal cancer.

That, my friends, is a perfect example of how to think like a nurse.

What random, nursing-related bumper stickers have you seen?

7 thoughts on “Does Heartburn Cause Cancer?”

  1. Awesome teaching, where were you when I needed you 20 years ago. Got good grades but it was a whole lot more work than needed. As to the Gastric Reflux, there is a second school of thought.

    One doctor found that heart burn is a sign and symptom of a lack of free water and electrolytes. As a scientist, any nurse can prove it for themselves.

    As we expand the bounds of knowledge, we will be able to help more and more people in the future to avoid the loss we had to experience.

    To make the heart burn go away, take a pinch of salt and put on the tongue, then drink a glass of water. It should be gone in 6 minutes. To prevent heart burn, 30 minutes before eating, put a pinch of salt on the tongue and let it dissolve. Then drink a glass of water. No more heartburn.

    The research found the same to be true of ulcers but for a different reason. When the lining of our stomach and duodenum are unable to make the thick mucus lining that protects them from the highly acidic gastric juices, ulcers result. The lack of adequate mucous layer is thus more susceptible to attacks by the bacterium H. pylori, potentially resulting in ulcers. A lot of people have H-pylori but not all who have H-pylori have ulcers.

  2. Samita Spencer

    That’s what nurses do best. You are born to care and share knowledge. Thanks for making a difference in everyone’s life.

  3. Deirdre

    I’m a first year student nurse and have my end of year nursing exam in two hours. I came on to your website for some quick, last minute revision on hypertonic solutions and then saw this article. My dear dad was diagnosed with stage 4 oesophageal cancer yesterday. The cause? Years of heartburn most likely. If you have heartburn, see your doctor and get it treated. It might just save your life.

    1. Thank you for sharing! My prayers are with your family. I had seriously never thought about heart as a cause for cancer until I saw that bumper sticker, so I’m glad that I can play a small role in getting the word out now.

      1. jan

        My mom has a chronic heartburn that she has to depend on omeprazo meds. She has also has occasionally burning sensation that starts from the abdomen and radiates to the heart. Could this mean that she has a particular type of cancer

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