Esophageal cancer occurs when cancer cells develop in the esophagus, a tube-like structure that runs from your throat to your stomach. Food goes from the mouth to the stomach through the esophagus. There are two main types of esophageal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.
Early on there may be no symptoms. In more advanced cancers, symptoms of esophageal cancer include:
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Weight loss
There are several factors which increase a person's risk of developing esophageal cancer. They include:
- Smoking or other use of tobacco
- Heavy alcohol use
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which contents and acid from the stomach back up into the esophagus
- Barrett’s Esophagus, a condition that affects the lower part of the esophagus and can lead to esophageal cancer; Barrett's esophagus may be caused by GERD. Over time, stomach acid in the esophagus can cause changes in the cells that increase risk for adenocarcinoma.
- Obesity- men, and the elderly that are obese are at greater risk for esophageal cancer
- Gender- Risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is higher in white men, but squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus is more common in Asian men and men of color
To diagnose esophageal cancer, your doctor will review your symptoms, medical history, and examine you. In addition, he or she may order certain blood tests and X-rays. To determine whether you have esophageal cancer or not, your doctor will perform one or more of the following tests:
- Barium Swallow X-Ray
- Endoscopy with Biopsy
- Advanced Imaging such as CT, MRI, PET scans
Other tests, including computed tomography (CT) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scan, thoracoscopy, and laparoscopy, may be performed to determine if the cancer has spread, or metastasized, outside of the esophagus. This process is called "staging." The doctor needs this information to plan your treatment.
As with many cancers, esophageal cancer treatment has a higher chance of cure if the cancer is caught early. Unfortunately, by the time esophageal cancer is diagnosed for many people, it is often already in an advanced stage (has spread throughout the esophagus and beyond). Treatment of esophageal cancer depends on many factors, including the stage of the cancer and the overall health of the patient.