Cancer of the Esophagus Causes and Treatments

The esophags is a muscular tube that is responsible for moving food from the throat to the stomach. Esophageal cancer occurs when a malignant (cancerous) tumor forms in the esophagus lining.

As it grows it can affect the deep tissues and muscle of the esophagus. A tumor can appear anywhere along the length of the esophagus, but in the United States they’re most common toward the bottom.

There are two common forms of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma occurs when the cancer starts in the flat, thin cells that make up the lining of the esophagus. This form most often appears in the top or middle of the esophagus, but it can appear anywhere.
  • Adenocarcinoma occurs when cancer starts in the glandular cells of the esophagus that are responsible for production of fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas are most common in the lower portion of the esophagus.

What Causes Esophageal Cancer?

The cause of esophageal cancer, like most cancers, is not yet known. It’s believed to be related to abnormalities in the DNA of the cells related to the esophagus. The abnormal cells develop mutations that cause them to multiply more rapidly than normal cells. These abnormal cells typically don’t die when they should. This causes them to accumulate and become tumors.

Who Is at Risk for Developing Esophageal Cancer?

Experts believe that irritation of the cells of the esophagus contributes to the development of cancer. Some habits and conditions that can cause irritation include:

  • consuming alcohol
  • smoking
  • having a reflux disorder such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • being overweight
  • not eating enough fruits and vegetables
  • having Barrett’s esophagus (a damaged esophageal lining due to GERD)

According to the National Cancer Institute, men are three times as likely to develop esophageal cancer as women. The cancer is more common in African Americans than in other races. Your chances of developing esophageal cancer increase with age. If you’re over the age of 45, your risk may be higher.

What Are the Signs?

During the early stages of esophageal cancer, you probably won’t experience any symptoms. As your cancer progresses, you might experience:

  • weight loss without trying
  • indigestion
  • heartburn
  • frequent choking while eating
  • vomiting
  • food coming back up the esophagus
  • chest pain
  • fatigue

How is cancer of the esophagus diagnosed?

Esophagus cancers are usually found because of signs or symptoms a person is having. If esophagus cancer is suspected, exams and tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis. If cancer is found, further tests will be done to help determine the extent (stage) of the cancer.

Medical history and physical exam

If you have symptoms that might be caused by esophageal cancer, the doctor will ask about your medical history to check for possible risk factors and to learn more about your symptoms.

Your doctor will also examine you to look for possible signs of esophageal cancer and other health problems. He or she will probably pay special attention to your neck and chest areas.

If the results of the exam are abnormal, your doctor probably will order tests to help find the problem. You may also be referred to a gastroenterologist (a doctor specializing in digestive system diseases) for further tests and treatment.

How is cancer of the esophagus diagnosed?

Esophagus cancers are usually found because of signs or symptoms a person is having. If esophagus cancer is suspected, exams and tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis. If cancer is found, further tests will be done to help determine the extent (stage) of the cancer.

Medical history and physical exam

If you have symptoms that might be caused by esophageal cancer, the doctor will ask about your medical history to check for possible risk factors and to learn more about your symptoms.

Your doctor will also examine you to look for possible signs of esophageal cancer and other health problems. He or she will probably pay special attention to your neck and chest areas.

If the results of the exam are abnormal, your doctor probably will order tests to help find the problem. You may also be referred to a gastroenterologist (a doctor specializing in digestive system diseases) for further tests and treatment.

  • Imaging tests
  • Barium swallow
  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Endoscopy
  • Lab testing of biopsy samples

Other tests

When looking for signs of esophageal cancer, a doctor may order a blood test called a complete blood count (CBC) to look for anemia (a low red blood cell count, which could be caused by internal bleeding). A stool sample may be checked to see if it contains occult (unseen) blood.

If esophageal cancer is found, the doctor may order other tests, especially if surgery might be an option. For instance, blood tests can be done to make sure your liver and kidneys are working normally.

Tests may also be done to check your lung function, since some people might have lung problems (such as pneumonia) after surgery.

If surgery is planned or you are going to get medicines that could affect your heart, you may also have an electrocardiogram (EKG) and echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) to make sure your heart is working well.

Long-Term Outlook: Chance of Survival

Unfortunately, there is usually no cure for esophageal cancer. If your cancer has not spread outside your esophagus, your chances of survival may improve following surgery.

Preventing Esophageal Cancer

Although there is no sure way to prevent esophageal cancer, there are a few steps you can take to lower your risk. Avoiding smoking or chewing tobacco is key.

Limiting your consumption of alcohol is thought to lower your risk as well. Eating a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and maintaining a healthy weight may also be effective ways to avoid esophageal cancer.

Source and More Info: Healthline and American Cancer Society

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