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Frequent Heartburn Ups Head and Neck Cancer Risk by 78 Percent

Update Date: May 23, 2013 11:05 AM EDT

If you suffer from frequent heartburn you are more likely to develop cancers of the pharynx (throat) and larynx (vocal cord), and the risk is significant even in you don't smoke or drink.

However, using antacids could lower the risk of developing those cancers, a new study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention revealed.

"Previous studies examining gastric reflux and cancers of the head and neck have generated mixed results," researcher Scott M. Langevin of Brown University said in a statement.

While many previous studies had either small sample sizes or had not accounted for confounding factors, the latest study involved a large population-based sample size with robust parameters.  Researchers found a strong link between gastric reflux, which causes frequent heartburn, and cancers of the pharynx and larynx.

The study involved 631 cancer patients from a large group of participants enrolled in a population-based, case-control study in the greater Boston area, and 1,234 healthy participants matched for age and gender.  Of the 631 cancer patients, 468 had throat cancer and 163 had cancers of the vocal cord.

Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire on their history of heartburn, smoking and drinking habits, family history of cancer and sociodemographic information.  Researchers noted that because some head and neck cancers are caused by infection with human papillomavirus 16 (HPV 16), the researchers tested for the presence of antigens to HPV 16 viral proteins in the blood of all participants.

The findings revealed that among participants who were neither heavy smokers nor heavy drinkers, a history of frequent heartburn was linked to a 78 percent increased risk for cancers of the throat and vocal cord. 

The study also revealed that taking antacids lowered the risk of throat and vocal cord cancer by 41 percent.  However, the same protective effect was not seen in those who took prescription medications or home remedies.  Researchers found that the protective effect of antacids was consistent, regardless of the participants' smoking and drinking habits, HPV 16 status or tumor site.

"Additional studies are needed to validate the chemopreventive effects of antacids among patients with frequent heartburn," said Langevin.

"The identification of gastric reflux as a risk factor for throat and vocal cord cancers, however, may have implications in terms of risk stratification and identification of high-risk patients," he concluded.

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