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Esophageal Cancer

What is esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer is cancer that develops in the esophagus, the muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. The esophagus, located just behind the trachea, is about 10 to 13 inches in length and allows food to enter the stomach for digestion. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers and cancers generally start from the inner layer and grow out.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 17,990 Americans will be newly diagnosed with esophageal cancer during 2013, and about 15,210 deaths are expected.

What causes esophageal cancer?

No one knows exactly what causes esophageal cancer. At the top of the esophagus is a muscle, called a sphincter, that releases to let food or liquid go through. The lower part of the esophagus is connected to the stomach. Another sphincter muscle is located at this connection that opens to allow the food to enter the stomach. This muscle also works to keep food and juices in the stomach from backing into the esophagus. When these juices do back up, reflux, commonly known as heartburn, occurs.

Long-term reflux can change the cells in the lower end of the esophagus. This condition is known as Barrett's esophagus. If these cells are not treated, they are at much higher risk of developing into cancer cells.

What are the different types of esophageal cancer?

There are 2 main types of esophageal cancer. The most common type, known as adenocarcinoma, develops in the glandular tissue in the lower part of the esophagus, near the opening of the stomach. It occurs in just over half of the cases.

The other type, called squamous cell carcinoma, grows in the cells that form the top layer of the inner lining of the esophagus, known as squamous cells. This type of cancer can grow anywhere along the esophagus.

Treatment for both types of esophageal cancer is similar.

What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?

Often, there are no symptoms in the early stages of esophageal cancer. Symptoms do not appear until the disease is more advanced. The following are the most common symptoms of esophageal cancer. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing. A condition known as dysphagia is the most common symptom of esophageal cancer. This gives a sensation of having food lodged in the chest, and people with dysphagia often switch to softer foods to help with swallowing.

  • Pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades

  • Severe weight loss. Many people with esophageal cancer lose weight unintentionally because they are not getting enough food.

  • Hoarseness or chronic cough that does not go away within two weeks

  • Vomiting

  • Blood in stool or black-looking stools

  • Heartburn

The symptoms of esophageal cancer may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

There is no routine screening examination for esophageal cancer; however, people with Barrett's esophagus should be examined often because they are at greater risk for developing the disease.

What are the risk factors for esophageal cancer?

The following factors can put an individual at greater risk for developing esophageal cancer:

  • Age. The risk increases with age. In the U.S., most people are diagnosed at 55 years of age or older.

  • Gender. Men have more than a 3 times greater risk of developing esophageal cancer than women.

  • Tobacco use. Using any form of tobacco, but especially smoking, raises the risk of esophageal cancer. The longer tobacco is used, the greater the risk, with the greatest risk among persons who have indulged in long-term drinking with tobacco use. Scientists believe that these substances increase each other's harmful effects, making people who do both especially susceptible to developing the disease.

  • Alcohol use. Chronic or long-term heavy drinking is another major risk factor for esophageal cancer.

  • Acid reflux. Abnormal backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus increases esophageal cancer risk. 

  • Barrett's esophagus. Long-term irritation from reflux, commonly known as heartburn, changes the cells at the lower end of the esophagus. This is a precancerous condition, which raises the risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.

  • Obesity. Being very overweight increases the risk of esophageal cancer. This might be because being overweight puts you at higher risk for reflux. 

  • Diet. Diets low in fruits and vegetables and certain vitamins and minerals can increase risk for this disease.

  • Other irritants. Swallowing caustic irritants such as lye and other substances can burn and destroy cells in the esophagus. The scarring and damage done to the esophagus can put a person at greater risk for developing cancer many years after ingesting the substance.

  • Medical history. Certain diseases, such as achalasia, a disease in which the bottom of the esophagus does not open to release food into the stomach, and tylosis, a rare, inherited disease, increase the risk of esophageal cancer. In addition, anyone who has had other head and neck cancers has an increased chance of developing a second cancer in this area, which includes esophageal cancer.

How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for esophageal cancer may include the following:

  • Chest X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Upper GI (gastrointestinal) series (also called barium swallow). A diagnostic test that examines the organs of the upper part of the digestive system: the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (the first section of the small intestine). A fluid called barium (a metallic, chemical, chalky, liquid used to coat the inside of organs so that they will show up on an X-ray) is swallowed. X-rays are then taken to evaluate the digestive organs.

  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (also called EGD or upper endoscopy). A procedure that allows the doctor to examine the inside of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. A thin, flexible, lighted tube with a tiny video camera on the end, called an endoscope, is guided into the mouth and throat, then into the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. The endoscope allows the doctor to view the inside of this area of the body, as well as to insert instruments through a scope for the removal of a sample of tissue for biopsy (if necessary).

  • Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan). A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays. If further imaging is needed, your doctor may order a MRI or PET scan.

  • Endoscopic ultrasound. This imaging technique uses sound waves to create a computer image of the wall of the esophagus, stomach, and nearby lymph nodes. The endoscope is guided into the mouth and throat, then into the esophagus and the stomach. As in standard endoscopy, this allows the doctor to view the inside of this area of the body, as well as insert instruments to remove a sample of tissue (biopsy).

  • Thoracoscopy and laparoscopy. These methods allow the doctor to examine the lymph nodes and other structures inside the chest or abdomen with a hollow, lighted tube inserted through a small cut in the skin, and remove suspicious areas for further testing.

  • PET scan. A test that uses a radioactive glucose (sugar) dye to highlight cancer cells and create pictures of the inside of the body. The test is done much like a CT scan. First, the doctor or nurse injects a small amount of radioactive dye into your vein. Then a scanner is moved around your body and takes many pictures of your neck, chest, and abdomen. A computer puts these pictures together to show where the cancer cells are located.

Treatment for esophageal cancer

Specific treatment options for esophageal cancer will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent and location of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of this disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Surgery. Two types of surgery are commonly performed for esophageal cancer. In one type of surgery, part of the esophagus and nearby lymph nodes are removed, and the remaining portion of the esophagus is reconnected to the stomach. In the other surgery, part of the esophagus, nearby lymph nodes, and the top of the stomach are removed. The remaining portion of the esophagus is then reconnected to the stomach.

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the entire body.

  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill or shrink cancer cells.

  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT) or other laser therapies. In these treatments, an endoscope with a laser on the end is used to destroy cancer cells on or near the inner lining of the esophagus. 

Sometimes, several of these treatments may be combined to treat esophageal cancer.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Fincannon, Joy, RN, MN
Last Review Date: 12/23/2013
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