Cancer of the esophagus accounts for only around 1% of the cancers diagnosed in the United States. This cancer occurs in the tube connecting the throat to the stomach. According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates for this type of cancer have improved over time. In the past, only around 5% of patients with esophageal cancer survived at least five years after diagnosis. Today, approximately 20% of patients have a survival rate of five years or more. Those with cancer that remains localized to the esophagus have an even better survival rate, with around 45% surviving five years or longer.
9. Types of Esophageal Cancer
The two types of cancer involving the esophagus are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma refers to cancer of the squamous cells that line the surface of the esophagus. Meanwhile, adenocarcinoma refers to cancer that begins in the gland cells that line the digestive tract and secrete mucus. Adenocarcinomas tend to start where the esophagus and stomach connect. The American Cancer Society reports that adenocarcinoma has now replaced squamous cell carcinoma as the most common type of esophageal cancer in the U.S.
8. Risk Factors
Conditions that result in repeated injury to the esophagus may increase your risk of esophageal cancer. The Mayo Clinic lists gastroesophageal reflux disease, smoking, obesity, alcohol, and habitually drinking hot liquids as risk factors for this type of cancer. Barrett’s esophagus is another risk factor. This is a condition in which acid from the stomach causes repeated injury to the cells of the esophagus. Over time, gland cells may replace the healthy squamous cells in this area and can become pre-cancerous. Additionally, studies suggest that excluding fruits and vegetables from your diet may also increase your risk of esophageal cancer.
While risk factors such as age, gender, and susceptibility to Barrett’s esophagus are not within your control, other risk factors are. You can decrease your risk of esophageal cancer by refraining from smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, and including fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet. Allowing steamy beverages to cool before sipping and limiting the consumption of alcohol are other ways you can help prevent cancer. If you suffer from acid reflux, take care to follow your doctor’s recommendations for treating this condition. Individuals with Barrett’s esophagus should request monitoring their esophagus for signs of cancer.
As the lining of the esophagus becomes irritated and inflamed, it may become difficult or uncomfortable to eat. Symptoms of esophageal cancer often include difficulty swallowing food and pain when swallowing firmer foods such as raw vegetables, crackers, or cuts of meat. The American Society of Clinical Oncology also lists indigestion, heartburn, vomiting, choking, and weight loss as symptoms of this type of cancer. Furthermore, irritation may affect your windpipe, causing hoarseness, and coughing. If you frequently suffer from any of these symptoms, be sure to contact your physician.
If your doctor suspects esophageal cancer, he or she will choose from a variety of tests to make a diagnosis. Your physician may start with a barium swallow test to help visualize any abnormalities in the lining of your esophagus. According to the American Cancer Society, early cancers may show up as small round bumps or flat plaques on the surface of the esophagus. More advanced cancers form larger, irregular patches on the esophagus and may cause the passageway to narrow. Other tests used to diagnose esophageal cancer include CT scans, MRI, endoscopies, ultrasounds, biopsies, and blood tests.
4. Complications of Esophageal Cancer
Damage to the lining of the esophagus can cause complications such as pain and bleeding. Excessive esophageal bleeding can lead to conditions such as anemia. Furthermore, as the cancer cells damage the esophagus, the passageway can narrow. This causes difficulty in swallowing food or water, resulting in weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. If holes develop in the esophagus, food or liquids can leak into the lungs. As fluid enters the lungs, this can cause breathing issues and increase the risk of pneumonia. Additionally, as with many cancers, there is the risk of esophageal cancer metastasizing, or spreading to other parts of the body.
3. Local Treatment for Esophageal Cancer
If found early, esophageal cancer may be contained to just the esophagus. In this case, your physician may work with you to choose a treatment that specifically targets the cancerous areas of the esophagus. Surgical options include open esophagectomy and minimally invasive esophagectomy. Esophagectomy involves removing the affected portion of the esophagus. An open esophagectomy involves one large surgical incision. Meanwhile, the minimally invasive technique involves using several small cuts and a scope. Your physician may recommend radiation in place of or in addition to surgery.
2. Systemic Treatment for Esophageal Cancer
If the cancer has spread, your doctor may recommend systemic treatment for the cancer. Systemic treatment targets a larger area of the body. Chemotherapy is one treatment option that may be used along with surgery and radiation to treat aggressive forms of esophageal cancer. Newer anti-cancer drugs, called targeted therapies, may be beneficial in fighting esophageal cancer. These treatments target specific changes noted in cancer cells. Furthermore, immunotherapies may be useful for helping the body’s own immune system to kill off cancer cells.
1. Cancer Treatment Aftercare
After treatment for cancer, allow your body time to heal and recover. Once you have recovered from surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapies, you may wonder how to best care for your body. Take care to allow yourself plenty of time for rest. Indulge your body with wholesome, nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables. Incorporate exercise into your routine as you become able to strengthen your body. Limit your consumption of alcohol to less than two drinks per day for men or less than one drink per day for women.