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What You Need to Know About Esophageal Cancer

With no screening tools available, it’s important to be aware of your risk for and symptoms of esophageal cancer.

Your esophagus is the tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. It carries food and drinks to your stomach in order to nourish and fuel your body. When it isn’t operating properly, it can affect your overall quality of life, which is why it’s important to take steps to prevent conditions like esophageal cancer.

What are the risk factors for esophageal cancer?

There are two main types of esophageal cancer, each with its own set of risk factors. The most common type, adenocarcinoma, starts in the glandular cells of the esophagus. The second most common type, squamous cell carcinoma, affects the upper lining tissue of the esophagus.

“Both types of esophageal cancer are associated with an irritation of the esophagus,” says medical oncologist Dr. James Posey. “Adenocarcinoma often occurs in those who have uncontrolled acid reflux. Squamous cell carcinoma usually occurs in those who have a history of heavy smoking or alcohol consumption.”

What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?

“The most common symptom is persistent trouble swallowing foods, drinks and pills,” says Dr. Posey. Unfortunately, there is no screening for esophageal cancer. So, especially if you have a history of smoking and regular, long-term alcohol use or acid reflux, you should recognize the signs and symptoms and share anything unusual with your primary care provider.

Symptoms of esophageal cancer can also include:

  • Frequent choking on foods, including those that are semi-solid or liquid
  • Trouble digesting food
  • Unexplained weight loss

What are the treatment options for esophageal cancer?

Treatment options for this type of cancer vary depending on its type, stage and location, as well as your specific health needs. “Because this type of tumor has the ability to spread quickly beyond where it has originated, we usually give systemic therapy for all patients except those with very localized disease,” says Dr. Posey. “This includes chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy.”

Surgery is usually reserved for localized and regional disease—typically tumors that originate from lower esophagus cells altered by stomach acid. “To achieve the best outcomes, surgical tumor removal happens after chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. We can also use immunotherapy after surgery if there is residual cancer in the surgically removed tissue,” says Dr. Posey.

What is the outlook for patients with esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer has the potential to spread quickly if it penetrates the muscular wall, making it much more difficult to eliminate, so the outlook and survival rates are dependent upon the type, stage and location of the tumor. “Across all types of esophageal cancer, the five-year survival rate is close to 50% for localized tumors, but declines to 30% for tumors that have spread,” says Dr. Posey.

[Main photo credit: iStock.com/kazuma seki]

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