How to Manage Heartburn with Cancer

How to Manage Heartburn with Cancer

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

After some meals, you might notice a burning sensation in the chest or throat, a bitter taste in the mouth, or pain in the middle of your back. These signs usually indicate heartburn—also known as gastric reflux or indigestion. Heartburn happens when the acids that break down food in the stomach travel up the esophagus, causing a “burning” sensation. When those acids travel even further to the lungs, it can cause a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Heartburn and GERD share many of the same symptoms, including:
·   Cough
·   Sore throat
·   Sour, bitter, or acidic taste in the mouth or back of the throat
·   Burning and pressure in the chest or throat
·   Trouble swallowing
·   Bad breath
·   Regurgitation (stomach contents coming back up the throat)
·   An increase in any of these sensations while lying down
Many people experience heartburn after eating certain foods, like coffee, greasy or high-fat foods, spicy dishes, or acidic fruits and vegetables (like tomatoes or citrus). During cancer treatment, however, you might notice that your body is particularly sensitive to heartburn. That’s because certain cancer treatments, such as some chemotherapy drugs, hormonal therapies, or targeted therapies, can cause heartburn and GERD. Bisphosphonate medications, which are used to protect bones during cancer treatment, may also cause heartburn and GERD. Heartburn can also be caused by prescription or over-the-counter pain medications.
An occasional bout of heartburn is not deadly, but severe symptoms can feel really intense. Over time, GERD that is not treated can damage the lining of the esophagus, causing bleeding, ulcers, and scarring. That’s why it’s so important for you to check in with your healthcare team about the symptoms you’re experiencing—in addition to preventing further damage, you can also discuss changes to your medications or lifestyle to keep heartburn and GERD at bay. These strategies may include:
Eat small amounts of food. A very full stomach can relax the muscle between your stomach and esophagus, allowing stomach acids to travel up. Smaller meals let your stomach get to work digesting your food in a contained manner.
Know your triggers. Everybody is different. You might be able to eat spicy foods without issue, only to find your heartburn flares up when you consume anything containing peppermint. Knowing the foods and drinks that make your heartburn flare up can help you create a list of foods to reduce or avoid in your diet. Common heartburn triggers include:
·   Spicy foods
·   Fatty meats
·   Fried food
·   Citrus fruit
·   Chocolate
·   Coffee
·   Raw onion
·   Tomatoes
·   Butter/oil
·   Peppermint
Don’t wear tight clothing. Tight belts, pants, hosiery, and undergarments can push against the stomach, forcing acid into the esophagus.
Limit alcohol use. Studies show a link between alcohol consumption and the risk of GERD. The effects of alcohol are two-fold: it stimulates the stomach to produce more acid, while also relaxing the muscles that keep food and acid from rising into the esophagus. Skip the wine and opt for water, tea, or milk instead.
Avoid eating before bedtime. Laying down after a meal can make it easy for stomach acid to travel into the esophagus. Time your meals so that you are sitting upright for at least three hours after eating. If you must lie down, use pillows or a foam wedge to elevate your head six to eight inches while you sleep.
Talk with your doctor about medical treatments. Medications are available with and without a prescription for heartburn and GERD. Options include antacids, H2 blockers, and proton pump inhibitors. Talk with your doctor about which medication is right for you, as some acid reflux drugs have been linked to negative side effects when used during cancer treatment.
Though heartburn and GERD symptoms can be uncomfortable, they don’t have to be unbearable. Addressing your symptoms early and often can help you soothe the burn.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at