Black men in Washington who are heavy drinkers are more likely to develop cancer of the esophagus than other members of the population, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute.
In a sampling here of black males for this kind of cancer, both the incidence and death rate were twice the national average for nonwhite males, and seven times the national rate for white males.
The study also showed that nearly50 percent of the cancer patients had a history of drinking a pint or more of hard liquor every day, while only about 30 percent of a comparison group of black males, who had died of other causes, drank that much. The esophagus is the tube that leads from the bottom of the throat to the stomach.
NCI investigators interviewed relatives or close friends of 120 black men who died here between 1975 and 1977 and whose deaths were listed as due to the relatively unusual disease, known as esophageal cancer. The information was compared to similar data collected on 250 black men who had died of other causes during the same period.
Other cancer researchers said yesterday that the NCI conclusions appear reasonable, although some questioned some aspects of the research. The study would have been stronger if the NCI researchers had interviewed the patients directly before their deaths, rather than relying on relatives and friends for case histories, said Howard University cancer researcher John Enterline.
He said that the Howard University Cancer Center and the D.C. Department of Human Services are conducting a similar study, which includes interviews with patients.
Results will be published in a few weeks, cancer center spokesman Les Butler said, adding that the "preliminary data . . . support the NCI findings on esophageal cancer in the District."
The NCI study found that the death rate among nonwhite males here from esophogeal cancer in the early and mid-1970s was 28.6 per 100,000 population. This compares with a national rate of 12.4 for nonwhite males and 4.1 for white males.
Generally, esophageal cancer strikes "the person who is a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker," said Jack Killen, a senior cancer treatment investigator at NCI. "The combination of the two increases the risk tenfold."
Linda M. Pottern, one of the researchers in the NCI study, said there may be other factors as well.
One appears to be diet. Pottern said researchers found that the cancer patients ate fewer daily meals than the comparison group and had consumed fewer dairy products, eggs, fruits and vegetables but more canned and salted meats. The study did not seem to establish a strong correlation between cigarette smoking and esophageal cancer, she said, although such an association has been suggested by other scientists.
These findings are a first step in understanding why blacks in the District have a particularly high rate of esophageal cancer, Pottern said. The relationship between heavy alcohol consumption and esophageal cancer was not surprising, she said, because the District's rate for cirrhosis of the liver -- a disease common in alcoholics -- is two and a half times that of the national average for nonwhites.
Although esophageal cancer is rare, "it's a bad one," Killen said. He explained that the first warning signs usually are pain and difficulty in swallowing, which becomes more difficult as the tumor grows. Little can be done for these patients, he added.
"Radiation therapy is most common; it does control some of the symptoms," Killen said. Death usually follows within six months of discovery of the disease.
In the past, studies of other health problems in the District have suggested that low-income, black, unemployed men who generally are in poor health have a high incidence of alcoholism and are especially susceptible to tuberculosis and other chronic diseases.
District health officials speculate that these may be some of the same men who are getting esophageal cancer, but said it would take a very complicated study to prove this.