Esophageal Cancer: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

What Is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the esophagus, which is a long, muscular tube that moves food from your throat to your stomach for digestion.

Types of Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer primarily manifests in two forms – Adenocarcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma. The prevalence of each type can vary significantly based on geographic location and lifestyle factors.

Adenocarcinoma typically occurs in the lower part of the esophagus, closer to the stomach, and is often linked to conditions like Barrett’s esophagus, which is related to chronic acid reflux.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma, on the other hand, occurs in the cells lining the surface of the esophagus and is more commonly found in the upper and middle parts.

Identifying the type of esophageal cancer is crucial as it influences treatment options and prognosis.

Symptoms and Causes of Esophageal Cancer

The symptoms of esophageal cancer might not be apparent in the early stages of the disease.

As the cancer progresses, symptoms become more noticeable and may include difficulties in swallowing (dysphagia), unintended weight loss, chest pain, indigestion or heartburn, and a persistent cough or hoarseness.

Various factors contribute to the development of esophageal cancer, with lifestyle choices and medical conditions playing significant roles. The use of tobacco in any form, excessive alcohol consumption, and a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables are key risk factors.

Additionally, chronic acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that significantly increases the risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma. Other risk factors include obesity, having a history of certain radiation treatment to the chest or upper abdomen, and achalasia.

Achalasia is a rare esophageal motility disorder characterized by the inability of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle ring at the entrance to your stomach, to relax properly during swallowing. This leads to a build-up of food and liquid in the esophagus, which can cause difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food, chest pain, and weight loss.

The exact cause is unknown, though it involves nerve damage in the esophagus. There is no cure for achalasia, but treatments, including medications, pneumatic dilation, and surgery, can help alleviate symptoms.

What’s the Main Cause of Esophageal Cancer?

While there’s no single overarching cause, a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors plays significant roles in its development. Tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption emerge as the two most prominent lifestyle-related risk factors. Both of these habits can cause significant damage to the cells lining the esophagus, leading to cancer.

Additionally, chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can lead to Barrett’s esophagus—a precancerous condition—is another key risk factor. This condition involves changes in the cells lining the lower esophagus, significantly increasing the risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.

Obesity and poor dietary habits further elevate the risk, making a comprehensive approach to prevention crucial, including lifestyle adjustments and regular medical screening for those at high risk.

How Does Esophageal Cancer Affect My Body?

This particular cancer primarily impacts your body by interfering with the normal function of the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow food and liquids. This can lead to weight loss and malnutrition as the body cannot receive the necessary nutrients for maintaining health.

Furthermore, in cases where the cancer has spread beyond the esophagus to other parts of the body, it can affect the lungs, liver, and lymph nodes, thereby further complicating the overall health scenario.

For patients, this might result in various symptoms, including, but not limited to, coughing, chest pain, and breathing difficulties. The progression of the disease can significantly affect one’s quality of life, necessitating prompt medical intervention for relief and treatment.

Diagnosis and Tests

Early diagnosis of esophageal cancer can significantly improve patients’ prognosis, highlighting the importance of recognizing symptoms and undergoing appropriate tests. Typically, the diagnostic process starts with a review of the patient’s medical history and a physical examination, focusing on any symptoms and risk factors present. If esophageal cancer is suspected, several tests may be conducted to confirm the diagnosis.

The main diagnostic tool is an upper endoscopy, which allows doctors to examine the inside of the esophagus and take biopsy samples of any abnormal tissues for further examination. Other tests may include imaging studies such as a barium swallow, where the patient drinks a barium solution to highlight the esophagus on X-rays, and various forms of scans (CT, PET, or MRI) to assess the extent of the cancer and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. These diagnostic steps are crucial for determining the cancer stage, which guides the treatment plan.

Management and Treatment

The management and treatment of esophageal cancer depend on several factors, including the stage of the cancer, the patient’s overall health, and their preferences. Treatment options typically involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these approaches.

Surgery can be performed to remove a portion of the esophagus and nearby lymph nodes to prevent the cancer’s spread.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and is often combined with chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery or to relieve symptoms in advanced cases.

Chemotherapy involves drugs that kill cancer cells, used either before surgery to shrink tumors or as the main treatment if the cancer is advanced.

Targeted therapy drugs focus on specific abnormalities present within cancer cells.

In cases of advanced esophageal cancer, palliative care becomes crucial to managing symptoms and improving quality of life, involving treatments like stenting to keep the esophagus open. Deciding on the best treatment plan involves detailed discussions between the patient and their healthcare team, considering all possible side effects and outcomes.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

If you experience any symptoms mentioned above, it’s crucial to seek medical advice promptly. These symptoms do not always indicate esophageal cancer but warrant a thorough examination to rule out this and other possible conditions.

Additionally, individuals with risk factors like a history of heavy tobacco or alcohol use, chronic GERD, Barrett’s esophagus, or a familial history of cancer should discuss regular screenings with their doctor. Early detection of esophageal cancer can significantly improve the effectiveness of treatment and the chance of a favorable outcome.

If you recognize any of the symptoms or concerns mentioned in the article, please contact Allied Digestive Health. We’ll work together to keep you happy and healthy.