Every time you eat food or take a drink, it has to travel down the long tube between your mouth and stomach. When abnormal cells form on the esophagus wall, they can sometimes become cancerous and eventually lead to an esophageal cancer diagnosis.
What is esophageal cancer? The condition occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells form and grow in esophagus tissues. It can cause pain and discomfort in the chest or make eating and drinking difficult, which may lead to weight loss or malnutrition. Fortunately, there are many viable treatments for esophageal cancer, as well as ways to help prevent it from developing to begin with.
If you or a patient dear to you are facing a potential esophageal cancer diagnosis, you probably may have questions about the causes, symptoms, and the esophageal cancer treatment options available. Here’s what you should know about the disease.
Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer
The esophagus is the long, hollow tube with an inner and outer lining that runs between your mouth and stomach. Cancer forms in the inner lining and then spreads outward.
There are two main types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Squamous cells line the inner esophagus, and when they become abnormal, they can turn cancerous.
With adenocarcinoma, normal, healthy cells are replaced with cancerous cells derived from glands. This type of esophageal cancer tends to be located closer to the stomach and is believed to be largely related to acid exposure to the lower esophagus.
As the condition progresses, symptoms of esophageal cancer can include:
- Difficulty or painful swallowing
- Weight Loss
- Pain the chest, behind the breastbone
- Hoarseness when speaking and breathing
- Indigestion and heartburn
However, bear in mind that early signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer may be minimal or even undetectable.
How Common Is Esophageal Cancer?
Esophageal cancer is more common among men than among women and makes up approximately one percent of all cancer diagnoses in the United States. The lifetime risk of esophageal cancer is roughly one in 125 for men and one in 417 for women.
The five-year survival rate ranges from about 50% for localized cancers to 25% for regionally metastasized cancers. Devastatingly, only 5% of patients with distant metastasis survive past five years.
But thankfully, we know a lot about how esophageal cancers are caused, and people can take some simple steps to avoid this disease, including not smoking and moderating their alcohol intake.
What Causes Esophageal Cancer?
What causes esophageal cancer? The single biggest risk factor for developing esophageal cancer is tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes is an unhealthy, destructive habit that can divert hot smoke into the esophagus, irritating the cells and potentially triggering harmful abnormalities.
Heavy alcohol use is also a known risk factor. High-proof liquors can irritate the esophagus and ultimately cause mutations that lead to cancer cells.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a condition in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, causing heartburn. The acid that enters the esophagus is a known risk factor for the formation of adenocarcinoma.
Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that can result from GERD. It’s also highly correlated with the development of adenocarcinoma.
Finally, certain groups have higher risks of esophageal cancer generally. Men, elderly individuals, those who are obese are at a greater risk for esophageal cancer.
Treatments for Esophageal Cancer
Is Esophageal Cancer curable? Treatment for esophageal cancer depends on the stage. Cancers detected early on are easier to treat, while those that become metastatic are more difficult and often require systemic treatments like chemotherapy.
Stage zero esophageal cancer is a precancerous stage that’s often diagnosed when someone with Barrett’s esophagus has a routine biopsy. Several less-invasive methods are available for treating the condition, including photodynamic therapy, radiofrequency ablation, or endoscopic mucosal resection. Surgical procedures can also remove the abnormal part of the esophagus. This procedure is called an esophagectomy.
Stage one cancers can be treated with endoscopic mucosal resection followed by another type of endoscopic procedure, like radiofrequency ablation. But sometimes, radiofrequency ablation is enough to kill the cancer alone.
Nevertheless, most patients with stage one cancer will elect to have an esophagectomy. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be used in conjunction to ensure the cancer has been completely removed or killed.
Stage two and three include cancers that have grown into the main muscle layer of the esophagus or that have spread into outer tissue. These cancers are generally treated with radiation in an attempt to reduce the size of the tumors prior to surgery and chemotherapy.
Stage four patients have distant metastasis, and surgery is generally not a good option because the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body. However, chemotherapy and immunotherapies like those offered at Immunity Therapy Center can help esophageal cancer patients feel better and live longer.
Learn More about Esophageal Cancer
At Immunity Therapy Center, we specialize in helping patients on the road to recovery through safe and natural therapies. Get in touch with us to learn more about what we do and how our therapies can support your journey.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.