What you need to know about Esophageal Cancer

Facts & Stats

Esophageal cancer is a type of cancer which affects the esophagus, a hollow tube connecting the throat with the stomach. The function of the esophagus is to move food from the throat to the stomach. The esophageal cancer mostly begins at the cells which are present at the inner lining of the esophagus. The condition can develop anywhere inside the esophagus. Statistically it has been found that more men are affected by this condition than women. Esophageal cancer is also sixth most widely occurring type of cancer which leads to death all over the world. The rate of incidence rates tends to vary from one location to another.

Symptoms

These are the main symptoms associated with esophageal cancer:

  • Dysphagia or difficulty in swallowing solid foods and also liquids in severe cases
  • Weight loss without even trying
  • Pain, burning or pressure felt in the chest
  • Worsening heartburn or indigestion can be present
  • Vomiting of blood
  • Coughing or hoarseness
  • Damage of the vocal chords
  • Acid reflux may cause poor taste in mouth along with hypersalivation
  • Passing of tarry, black stools, also called melena
  • Weakness and loss of energy due to lowered count of red blood cells
  • A progressed tumor may also lead to nerve damage in the vocal cord area

Early stages of esophageal cancer generally do not show any symptoms.

Stages

The esophageal cancer stages are rather complex and stated below:

  • T1 to T4: These stages depend on the depth of tumor and the layers of esophagus that have been affected by the cancer.
  • N0 to N3: These figures refer lymph nodes that are affected by the cancer.
  • M0 to M1: These indicate presence of metastases to the distant organs like bone, lung and liver.

The Stages of esophageal cancer are described as Stage I to IV, where I is benign and IV describes the situation where the tumor has metastasized and spread to the other organs of the body.

Causes

The exact causes responsible for esophageal cancer are not known. The various types of esophageal cancer, namely adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, small cell carcinoma, lymphoma, sarcoma, choriocarcinoma and melanoma may have varying responsible factors. There are of course some risk factors that have been associated with esophageal cancer, namely

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Having bile reflux
  • Consumption of alcohol
  • Having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Lack of enough vegetables and fruits in the diet
  • Having the habit of regularly drinking extremely hot liquids
  • Radiation treatment undergone for the upper abdomen or chest
  • Difficulty in swallowing due to problematic esophageal sphincter or achalasia
  • Barrett's esophagus or having precancerous changes within the cells of esophagus

Diagnosis

Esophageal cancer diagnosis is mainly performed by biopsy and endoscopy. Endoscopy is carried out by inserting a tube that has a camera attached to it. Typically the patient is sedated during the process of endoscopy. Biopsy is performed by collecting from sample cells from the tumor and inspecting it under a microscope. Once the presence of esophageal cancer has been determined, the doctor may try to determine the extent to which the cancer cells have spread inside the body. This is something that can be done by Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), Computerized tomography (CT), plain X-rays and Positron emission tomography (PET).

Treatment

Typically esophageal cancer is treated with surgery, although the type of surgical procedure to be used may vary with different patients. An endoscopic surgery can be done to remove small sized tumors. Esophagectomy and esophagogastrectomy are the other principal methods of treatment associated with this type of cancer. The doctor may also recommend chemotherapy and radiation therapy or a combination of both as a mode of treatment. Other treatments that can be used for curing this condition include photodynamic therapy and targeted therapy. If there are complications associated with esophageal cancer, the doctor may recommend methods for relieving esophageal obstruction and use of a feeding tube.

Prevention

Prevention of esophageal cancer is possible by making certain lifestyle changes. If you have the habit of smoking, you can bring down the possibility of esophageal cancer in a major way. You should also stick to a diet of vegetables and fruits so that the risk of this cancer is reduced. Do not consume alcohol on a regular basis as it can cause squamous cell carcinoma. If you are obese, try to lose weight as this can prove to be beneficial. If you use anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen, make sure that you limit their intake by asking your doctor.