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A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.
The following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing esophageal cancer:
Age. People between the ages of 45 and 70 have the highest risk of esophageal cancer.
Gender. Men are three to four times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer.
Race. Black people are twice as likely as white people to develop the squamous cell type of esophageal cancer.
Tobacco. Using any form of tobacco—including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff—raises the risk of esophageal cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma.
Alcohol. Heavy drinking over a long period of time increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus, especially when combined with tobacco use.
Barrett's esophagus. This condition can develop in some people who have chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus), even when a person does not have symptoms of chronic heartburn. Damage to the lining of the esophagus causes the squamous cells in the lining of the esophagus to turn into glandular tissue. People with Barrett's esophagus are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, but the risk of developing esophageal cancer is still fairly low.
Diet/nutrition. A diet that is low in fruits and vegetables and certain vitamins and minerals can increase a person's risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Obesity. Being severely overweight and having too much body fat can increase a person's risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma.
Lye. Children who have accidently swallowed lye have an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma. Lye can be found in some cleansing products, such as drain cleaners.
Achalasia. Achalasia, a condition when the lower muscular ring of the esophagus does not relax during swallowing of food, increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma.
Human papillomavirus (HPV). There are different types, or strains, of HPV, and some strains are more strongly associated with certain types of cancers. Researchers are investigating HPV for esophageal cancer, but there is no clear link that squamous cell esophageal cancer is related to HPV infection.
Regular screening tests to find esophageal cancer in people without symptoms are not used in the United States. People with Barrett's esophagus (see above) may be advised to have endoscopic examinations (looking inside the esophagus through a flexible, lighted tube) and biopsies (removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope) regularly to help find cancer early or to find changes that could become cancerous over time. Learn more about these tests in the Diagnosis section.
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