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Is indigestion a sign of cancer?

This page tells you about whether indigestion can be a sign of cancer. There is information on

 

What indigestion is

Indigestion is a common problem that most of us suffer with from time to time. It can cause heartburn (burning pain under your breastbone or discomfort after eating), as well as bloating and sickness. For most people indigestion isn’t a sign of cancer. But it may need treating by a doctor.

 

What causes indigestion?

Indigestion can be a symptom of cancer of the stomach or food pipe (oesophagus). But it is much more likely to be caused by something else. The common causes of indigestion are

Acid reflux

This is when the ring of muscle (sphincter) between the stomach and the food pipe (oesophagus) doesn’t close properly. This allows stomach acid back up into the food pipe.

Acid reflux is not usually a serious problem. You may have it after eating a large meal, if you are overweight, or after eating certain foods. But if you have it for more than a week or two let your doctor know so that they can help to find out what is causing it. 

Hiatus hernia

This is when part of the stomach pushes or bulges up through the muscle below your ribs (diaphragm). Hiatus hernia is more common in people over the age of 50, and in people who are overweight. It is usually treated with antacid medicines.

Some medicines

All medicines have side effects, and many drugs can upset your stomach. Some medicines can irritate the lining of your stomach for example anti inflammatory painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Nurofen). If you are taking any medicines or tablets it is worth asking your doctor if they could be causing your indigestion. It might be possible to switch to a different type of drug.

Helicobacter pylori

Helicobacter pylori are bacteria which can infect the stomach. This type of infection can cause stomach ulcers and increase the risk of stomach cancer. But infection with Helicobacter pylori is very common and most people who have it don’t develop stomach cancer.

 

When to go to your doctor

Many people manage their indigestion with over the counter medicines or by speaking to their pharmacist. But your doctor should take a look if

  • You get indigestion a lot
  • Your indigestion has come on suddenly
  • It is particularly painful

Indigestion is rarely a symptom of cancer. But if you are over the age of 55 you are more likely to need tests. This is because cancers of the stomach or oesophagus (food pipe) are more common as you get older.

To help GPs decide who needs an urgent referral to a specialist, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have developed guidelines. Seeing a specialist urgently means within 2 weeks of seeing your GP.

The guidelines say you should see a specialist or have an endoscopy urgently if you have indigestion and any of the following symptoms

  • Weight loss
  • Repeatedly being sick
  • A low red blood cell count (anaemia)
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Chronic bleeding from the stomach or oesophagus
  • A swelling or lump in your upper abdomen
  • Or you’ve had a barium meal that suggests cancer of the oesophagus or stomach

You should also have an endoscopy urgently if all of the following apply to you

  • You are over 55
  • Your indigestion has come on recently and won’t go away
  • Your GP can’t explain it
  • You don’t have any other symptoms

If you have indigestion that is getting worse and have

  • Been diagnosed with Barrett’s oesophagus
  • Had surgery for a stomach ulcer more than 20 years ago
  • Changes in the cells lining your oesophagus

your GP may refer you to a specialist urgently, because these are known risk factors for either oesophageal or stomach cancer.

 

Where to find more information

There is more information about symptoms of cancer of the food pipe (oesophagus) and symptoms of stomach cancer on this website.

You can find information about indigestion in general on the NHS Choices website.

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Updated: 3 May 2014