Can Esophageal Cancer Be Prevented?

Not all esophageal cancers can be prevented, but the risk of developing this disease can be greatly reduced by avoiding certain risk factors.

Avoiding tobacco and alcohol

In the United States, the most important lifestyle risk factors for cancer of the esophagus are the use of tobacco and alcohol. Each of these factors alone increases the risk of esophageal cancer many times, and the risk is even greater if they are combined. Avoiding tobacco and alcohol is one of the best ways of limiting your risk of esophageal cancer. If you or someone you know would like to quit tobacco, call us at 1-800-227-2345 or see Stay Away from Tobacco.

Watching your diet and body weight

Eating a healthy diet and staying at a healthy weight are also important. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help protect against esophageal cancer. Obesity has been linked with esophageal cancer, particularly the adenocarcinoma type, so staying at a healthy weight may also help limit the risk of this disease. For more on this, read our American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention.

Getting treated for reflux or Barrett’s esophagus

Treating people with reflux may help prevent Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer. Often, reflux is treated using drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), such as omeprazole (Prilosec®), lansoprazole (Prevacid®), or esomeprazole (Nexium®). Surgery might also be an option for treating reflux if the reflux is not controlled with medical therapy alone.

People at a higher risk for esophageal cancer, such as those with Barrett’s esophagus, are often watched closely by their doctors to look for signs that the cells lining the esophagus have become more abnormal. (See Can Esophageal Cancer Be Found Early?) If dysplasia (a pre-cancerous condition) is found, the doctor may recommend treatments to keep it from developing into esophageal cancer.

For those who have Barrett’s esophagus, daily treatment with a PPI might lower the risk of developing cell changes (dysplasia) that can turn into cancer. If you have chronic heartburn (or reflux), tell your doctor. Treatment can often improve symptoms and might prevent future problems.

Some studies have found that the risk of cancer of the esophagus is lower in people with Barrett’s esophagus who take aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. However, taking these drugs every day can lead to problems, such as kidney damage and bleeding in the stomach. For this reason, most doctors don’t advise that people take NSAIDs to try to prevent cancer. If you are thinking of taking an NSAID regularly, discuss the potential benefits and risks with your doctor first.

Some studies have also found a lower risk of esophageal cancer in people with Barrett’s esophagus who take drugs called statins, which are used to treat high cholesterol. Examples include atorvastatin (Lipitor®) and rosuvastatin (Crestor®). While taking one of these drugs might help some patients lower esophageal cancer risk, doctors don’t advise taking them just to prevent cancer because they can have serious side effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Kleinberg L, Kelly R, Yang S, Wang JS, Forastiere AA. Chapter 74 – Cancer of the Esophagus. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2014.

Posner MC, Minsky B, Ilson DH. Chapter 45: Cancer of the esophagus. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Shaheen NJ, Falk GW, Iyer PG, Gerson LB; American College of Gastroenterology. ACG Clinical Guideline: Diagnosis and Management of Barrett's Esophagus. Am J Gastroenterol. 2016;111:30-50.

Last Medical Review: June 14, 2017 Last Revised: June 14, 2017

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