Most With Reflux Disease Do Not Have an Increased Risk of Cancer
Reflux is a known risk factor for oesophageal cancer, but new research reports that most patients don't have a higher cancer risk.
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Reflux disease manifests as acid regurgitation and heartburn and is a known risk factor for oesophageal cancer. However, a new study published in The BMJ by researchers at Karolinska Institutet now reports that the majority of patients do not have a higher risk of cancer. A large-scale study from three Nordic countries shows that the cancer risk is only elevated in patients whom gastroscopy reveals to have changes in the oesophageal mucosa.
“This is a gratifying result since reflux disease is a very common condition and most patients are found to have a completely normal mucus membrane on gastroscopic examination,” says the study’s first author Dag Holmberg, researcher at the Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, Karolinska Institutet and resident doctor of surgery at Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden.
In reflux disease, acidic stomach contents leak into the oesophagus. This can sometimes cause inflammation in the oesophageal mucus membrane (oesophagitis), which is diagnosed via gastroscopy. It is common knowledge that reflux disease increases the risk of oesophageal cancer, but what the cancer risk is for patients with normal mucosa has remained unknown.
The symptoms of reflux disease can come and go but generally persist, which means that many patients frequently seek medical attention and often undergo repeated gastroscopies to detect mucosal lesions or prodromal cancer.
“Our study suggests that these repeated gastroscopies are probably unnecessary for people with reflux disease who have a normal oesophageal mucosa,” says Dr Holmberg. “These findings should be reassuring for this large patient group and can guide GPs who often treat them.”
The present study is based on national health data registries in Sweden, Denmark and Finland, and included over 285,000 individuals with reflux disease and no gastroscopic evidence of oesophagitis. The patients were followed for up to 31 years and the researchers registered all cases of oesophageal cancer.
By way of comparison, the researchers also analysed the cancer risk in over 200,000 individuals with reflux disease and oesophagitis. These people were at a clearly increased relative risk of developing oesophageal cancer.
“We now intend to examine what factors other than oesophagitis can be linked to tumour growth in people with reflux disease,” says the study’s last author Jesper Lagergren, professor of surgery at the Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, Karolinska Institutet, and consultant surgeon at Karolinska University Hospital.
Reference: Holmberg D, Santoni G, Euler-Chelpin M von, et al. Non-erosive gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and incidence of oesophageal adenocarcinoma in three Nordic countries: population based cohort study. BMJ. 2023;382:e076017. doi: 10.1136/bmj-2023-076017
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