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What is Esophageal Cancer?

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Esophageal Cancer


Updated September 04, 2008

Esophageal cancer develops in the esophagus, a long tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. It is generally hollow and is about ten inches long in adults. Esophageal cancer is also referred to as cancer of the esophagus.

Causes and Risk Factors of Esophageal Cancer

Although we don't know exactly what causes esophageal cancer, researchers have identified several known risk factors, something that increases the chances of developing a disease. Risk factors for esophageal cancer include:

Esophageal Cancer Symptoms

Common esophageal cancer symptoms include difficulty swallowing, persistent cough, hoarseness and weight loss. Symptoms generally do not appear until the disease has progressed.

Diagnosing Esophageal Cancer

There are no routine screening tests for esophageal cancer for those who are at average risk of the disease. People who are at a higher risk of esophageal cancer, such as those with tylosis or Barrett's esophagus, should be screened frequently by endoscopic evaluation and biopsy if needed. Frequent examinations for those at high risk may detect precancerous cells that could later progress into cancer if undetected.

For those who are at an average risk of esophageal cancer, the diagnostic process begins when symptoms become bothersome, prompting medical attention.

A thorough physical and recording of medical history is the first step in diagnosing any condition. This is an excellent time to discuss symptoms, family and personal history and ask any questions. If the doctor suspects an abnormality related to the esophagus, further evaluation is required.

Your doctor may recommend having a barium swallow test, especially if you complain of trouble swallowing. During the test, you will be asked to drink a barium liquid. X-rays will then be taken, which will show any abnormalities — this test is used to diagnose many conditions, not just esophageal cancer.

Directly viewing the esophagus is another way of determining the cause of symptoms related to the esophagus. An upper endoscopy is a common noninvasive way of viewing the esophagus. Under sedation, the doctor inserts an endoscope, a lighted tube that is equipped with a microscopic camera that transmits live video feed to a monitor, in to the mouth and slowly down to the esophagus and stomach.

During an endoscopy, a biopsy, which involves removing small amounts of esophageal tissue to later be screened in a lab by a pathologist, can be done, if needed. A biopsy ultimately confirms the presence or absence of cancer.

Once cancer is confirmed, it is then staged, showing how far the cancer has spread to nearby tissue or organs. If it is suspected that the cancer has spread from the esophagus, more testing needs to be done to determine the extent. Tests that may help stage esophageal cancer include MRIs, CT scans, PET scans, bronchoscopy or other endoscopic exams.

Treating Esophageal Cancer

Treatment of esophageal cancer depends mostly on the stage of cancer, general health and other factors. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are all methods of treating esophageal cancer. For some with early-stage esophageal cancer, surgery may be the only treatment method needed, but others may need two or even all three treatment types. Again, it all varies based on the stage of cancer.

An esophagectomy is an option for the those with early esophageal cancer that has not spread beyond the esophagus and in to the stomach. During the procedure, part of the esophagus is removed and attached to your stomach. Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed.

Another surgical method, an esophagogastrectomy, may be a good choice for those whose cancer has spread to the stomach. During this procedure, part of the esophagus and stomach are removed, then the stomach is reconnected to the esophagus. Nearby lymph nodes are also removed. To learn more about surgery, read:

Chemotherapy may be an option for some with esophageal cancer. It is given either before surgery (along with radiation therapy) or to relieve symptoms caused by advanced esophageal cancer (palliatively). Chemotherapy is effective at eliminating cancer cells but can also damage healthy cells in the process. This leads to side effects, such as hair loss and stomach upset.

Finally, radiation therapy is another treatment option for esophageal cancer. Often combined with chemotherapy, radiation therapy is a good choice for those who cannot have surgery. It is also given prior to surgery, often with chemotherapy, to shrink tumors before surgery.

Esophageal Cancer Prevention

There are a few lifestyle changes everyone can make in an effort to reduce their risk of esophageal cancer. Here are five simple tips that may aid in reducing your risk of esophageal cancer:

  1. If you smoke, stop! Smoking is a major risk factor for esophageal cancer. Smoking causes acid reflux and also damages cell DNA of the esophagus. Quitting smoking is easier than you think. With the right help and support, you'll be on your way to being a nonsmoker. Check out About Smoking Cessation, a site devoted to kicking the habit.
  2. Limit alcohol consumption. Long-term alcohol abuse is not only terrible for your overall health, it's a risk factor for esophageal cancer. Limit your alcohol intake or quit drinking alcohol.
  3. Eat healthy! Eating healthy foods is a good way to reduce your risk factor for many diseases. Eating fresh fruits, especially those that are dark green or yellow in color, are great in minimizing your cancer risk.
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  6. Esophageal Cancer - What is Esophageal Cancer

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