Most people have heard of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and skin cancer, but not as much is known about esophageal cancer. It is the 6th most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide, however, and being aware of the symptoms and risk factors can make a huge difference.
What is Esophageal Cancer?
The esophagus is the long, muscular tube that moves food and drink from the mouth to the stomach. Esophageal cancer occurs when a cell mutates anywhere along the inner lining of the esophagus and infiltrates the outer layers as the cancer spreads.
There are two main types of esophageal cancer: adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of esophageal cancer in the United States, and it typically occurs in the lower part of the esophagus. This type of cancer begins in the mucus-producing esophageal glands.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma is usually found in the middle and upper parts of the esophagus. Half of all squamous cell esophageal cancers involve a history of smoking. It is the most common type of esophageal cancer worldwide, but it is declining in the Western Hemisphere.
Who is most at risk for esophageal cancer?
Esophageal cancer is three times more likely to occur in males than it is in females, and it is especially prevalent in white males. Obesity and not eating enough vegetables and fruits also increases the risk of developing esophageal cancer, and the chances of developing it increase as you age. Most cases of esophageal cancer are diagnosed in people over the age of 55.
Esophageal cancer is most often caused by repeated injury to the lining of the esophagus, due to recurring heartburn (also known as acid reflux), indigestion, or a long history of drinking alcohol, smoking, or drinking extremely hot liquids. If you’re regularly exposed to breathing in harsh fumes in your occupation can also increase your chances of an esophageal cancer diagnosis.
Long-term heartburn can lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus where the lining of the esophagus changes its cellular structure to look more like the rest of the digestive tract. Studies have shown a link between a diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus and occurrences of esophageal cancer, so if you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, you’re at higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.
If you have a family history of esophageal cancer, a personal history of Barrett’s esophagus, or any of the risk factors listed above, you may be a good candidate for esophageal cancer screening. Discuss these issues with your doctor to determine your risk.
What are the warning signs of esophageal cancer?
Esophageal cancer often presents with minor symptoms or no symptoms at all, which is one of the reasons why it is so deadly. As the cancer progresses, its symptoms become more readily apparent.
The most common symptoms that indicate esophageal cancer include:
- Difficulty swallowing (also called dysphagia)
- Painful swallowing (also called odynophagia)
- Feeling like something is stuck in your chest
- Long-lasting indigestion or heartburn
- Coughing or hoarseness
- Burning, pressure, or pain in the chest
Difficulty swallowing is the most often the first symptom of esophageal cancer. Also watch for any of the symptoms listed above combined with anemia, reduced appetite, or unintended weight loss, which are common cancer symptoms and may indicate a problem.
Is Esophageal Cancer Curable?
Yes. As with all cancers, your chances of successful treatment are better when the cancer is caught in its early stages. That’s why it is especially important to see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you may have esophageal cancer. Someone diagnosed with Stage 0 esophageal cancer (when the cancer is only in the esophageal lining) can expect a 5-year survival rate of 80-90%. There are several therapies available for esophageal cancer, including targeted and minimally invasive treatment methods.
The esophagus may not be the first thing you think of when you think about the gastrointestinal tract, but since it helps move food through the body, that is how it is classified. At Digestive Health Centers, one of our highly skilled gastroenterologists can assess your symptoms and perform a variety of tests to make an accurate diagnosis. These tests may include bloodwork, an Upper GI endoscopy (with biopsy), or endoscopic ultrasound.
Receiving treatment at Digestive Health Centers can help detect esophageal cancer and start you on the path to recovery, so contact us today to begin your journey!