AUSTIN, Texas - April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month and a new study finds a growing number of people under the age of 50 are being diagnosed with the disease.
"In the last few years, many of us who've been in practice for a long time. We started seeing patients with cancers at an earlier age. So, we were already seeing this thing in clinic practice," Dr. Deepak Agrawal, medical director of digestive health and chief of gastroenterology at Dell Medical School.
The study by the American Association for Cancer Research gives further credence to what doctors like Dr. Agrawal have been dealing with. Researchers looked at 34,000 cases of esophageal adenocarcinoma, tracked in a national database from 1975 to 2015.
"It was a very elegant study and they look at a lot of patients," Dr. Agrawal said. "And they actually proved that esophageal cancer is happening at an increasing rate in younger populations. And, when I say younger populations - in the study they looked at people younger than 50 years of age."
The study found younger patients were more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer, something that Dr. Agrawal says there can be several reasons why.
According to Dr. Agrawal, younger people tend to ignore symptoms and doctors might not suspect cancer earlier due to their age. Also, if it's genetic, cancer could be progressing at a faster rate.
Esophageal cancer is also more common in men and Caucasians. Other risk factors include smoking, obesity - especially when extra weight is carried in your stomach area - and diets high in processed foods.
"These are associations - not causations. But, needless to say, I think it's time for us to start paying more attention to our eating habits," Dr. Agrawal said.
Another is risk is chronic heartburn or acid reflux, known as GERD, which can lead to a condition called "Barrett's esophagus."
"When the acid comes into the esophagus, the esophagus is not used to it," Dr. Agrawal said. "So, the cells get damaged and they repair themselves and these things happen over and over, every day or years, and eventually some of these cells can go rogue and they may transform themselves and that is how a cancer may develop."
Other red flags include difficulty swallowing, weight loss, low blood counts, and family history of cancers of the upper GI tract.
It's also advised that people should see a doctor if over-the-counter antacid medications don't help with acid reflux.