It’s a real raw deal that the symptoms of GERD can be similar to those of the very deadly esophageal cancer.

But there’s also a big difference between these two conditions.

If you’re having symptoms of GERD and google only those symptoms – then depending on what they are – you may see links to esophageal cancer pop up in the search results.

Or, you may see search results for esophageal cancer — for those very symptoms — if you type “esophageal cancer” next to your symptoms.

This is scary as sh*t.

Let’s Compare the Symptoms of GERD with Esophageal Cancer

Is there any striking difference between the two?

“Many people have occasional heartburn which they tolerate and are fully content with the use of over the counter medications or simply antacids,” says Alex Little, MD, a thoracic surgeon with a special interest in esophageal and lung cancer, and clinical professor at the University of Arizona.

“A physician only needs to be consulted when the person feels the heartburn is progressively severe or becomes associated with the sensation of regurgitation of gastric contents into the esophagus, or it actually reaches the mouth.”

Keep in mind that regurgitation into the mouth often happens with GERD.

“This progression can take years,” continues Dr. Little. It can also be measured in months if the patient’s lifestyle changes, namely, they gain excess weight from unhealthy eating habits.

It doesn’t take much fat gain in the belly to bring on one’s first experience with acid reflux.

Dr. Little continues, “When GERD is the reason for a patient to see a physician, it is quite reasonable to perform an endoscopy to look for Barrett’s esophagus to detect any dysplasia [excess cell growth] or early carcinoma.

“Esophageal carcinoma causes dysphagia [difficulty with food going down the esophagus] in all patients except those with early and small tumors, which is the case when the endoscopy performed for GERD, as discussed in the previous paragraph, detects such a tumor.”

The Definition of Swallowing Isn’t What You Think

“It is important to note that the medical understanding of swallowing includes not just clearing the mouth — it is not complete until the food enters the stomach,” explains Dr. Little.

“Patients with cancer can clear their mouth but find that food sticks on the way down and, depending on the size of the tumor, may never get through so that the patient subsists on liquids.

“Once the patient first experiences difficulty swallowing, it is only a short time — weeks or a month or two — until complete obstruction is present and nothing passes.”

What happens to the food if it can’t get past the obstruction?

It’s regurgitated. It comes back up and is spat out because it can’t go down.

If the tumor progresses enough, even mashed potatoes or pudding will come back up.

“As this state approaches, even patients in denial have to seek medical help.

“Patients with cancer may have pain, usually due to distension of the esophagus above the tumor blocking the passage of food.

“While the patient recognizes the pain is from the esophagus, it is not a burning sensation such as is due to acid irritation caused by GERD.”

It’s fair to point out that not all GERD pain feels like burning. It may just be “pain,” which can range from subtle to severe.

“Cancer patients rarely even mention pain unless asked, as their focus is on the difficulty swallowing,” says Dr. Little.

When food has mechanical trouble sliding down your esophagus due to an obstructing tumor, AND even if it gets past the tumor, this is one of those symptoms that’s not going to fly under the radar no matter how busy or distracted you are.

You WILL feel it. There won’t be, “Hmmm, am I only imagining food is getting stuck in my chest?”

Dr. Little continues, “Patients with acid reflux and heartburn do not need to worry about having cancer.

“However, many are aware of Barrett’s esophagus, its relationship to GERD and its malignant potential.

“As I stated, if heartburn is persistent, frequent or severe, then it’s reasonable to communicate that to a physician who can determine the need for an endoscopy.

“Finally, it’s worth remembering that most patients today have an adenocarcinoma (arising from glandular cells such as in Barrett’s esophagus), not squamous cell cancer.

“These patients usually have a history of GERD, and so they have or had heartburn when the new dysphagia caused by the cancer arrives.”

Dr. Little trained in general and thoracic surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; has been active in national thoracic surgical societies as a speaker and participant, and served as president of the American College of Chest Physicians.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.