Esophageal cancer risk overblown, study suggests

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(CBS) Heartburn sufferers, take heart.

New research shows that Barrett's esophagus - a condition caused by the leakage of stomach acid into the muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach - may be less likely to lead to esophageal cancer than previously thought.

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Doctors had thought that people with Barrett's esophagus were 30 to 40 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer - a particularly deadly malignancy - than those without Barrett's, HealthDay reported. But a large-scale Danish study shows that the risk is actually about 11 times greater. That suggests that about one case of esophageal cancer will be diagnosed for every 860 people with Barrett's, according to WebMD.

For the study - published in the Oct. 13 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine - researchers tracked all patients with Barrett's esophagus living in Denmark between 1992 and 2009.

The authors of the study concluded that the lower-than-expected risk suggests that doctors don't need to be as quick as they are to use invasive tests to screen Barrett's patients for esophageal cancer, putting scopes down patients' throats and taking tissue samples.

Some experts agreed. "Hopefully, this study will put a little brake on the whole hype," Dr. Heiko Pohl, associate professor of medicine at Dartmough Medical School, told WebMD. Pohl, who was not involved in the study, said it was likely to be "landmark" research.

But Dr. Anthony Starpoli, a gastroenterologist at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, told HealthDay, "I don't think based on this one study alone, we can actually make policy changes and certain societal recommendations about screening. "For me, what this does is let me tell the patient, 'I think you have a little les to worry about.'"

Barrett's esophagus causes cells in the esophagus to look more like those in the intestines. It affects about 1 percent of adults in the U.S. and is most common in older men - white men in particular. It's considered a key risk factor for esophageal cancer, along with smoking, drinking alcohol, and poor eating habits (failing to eat enough green and yellow fruits and vegetables).

The National Cancer Institute has more on esophageal cancer.