Health Care

What to Know About Esophageal Cancer

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The number of esophageal cancer cases (cancer of the esophagus) in the U.S. is staggering: The American Cancer Society estimates that about 19,260 new esophageal cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, with over 15,000 deaths from this disease.

Additionally, esophageal cancer affects significantly more men than women in the U.S. In a lifetime, the risk for men is about 1 in 125, and for women, it’s 1 in 417.

These statistics highlight the importance of preventive care to take charge of your health for the long term. We’re here to help you be informed about esophageal risk factors, symptoms and more so that you can protect your whole health.

Risk Factors for Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer affects the esophagus, or the tube that connects your throat to your stomach.

While the exact cause for esophageal cancer is not known, certain factors increase your risk. Lifestyle habits or long-term conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can damage the esophageal cells' DNA, which can lead to cancer.

The risk factors for esophageal cancer include:

  • Achalasia
  • Barrett’s esophagus
  • Being age 55 and over
  • Being male
  • Esophageal scarring
  • GERD
  • Obesity
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome

Keeping these risk factors in mind, you can help prevent esophageal cancer by:

  • Not smoking or drinking alcohol
  • Getting treatment for GERD or Barrett’s esophagus
  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

The Relationship Between Untreated GERD, Barrett’s Esophagus and Esophageal Cancer

One of the most significant risk factors for developing esophageal cancer is GERD, which occurs when stomach acid goes up into the esophagus. It can cause what many people think is heartburn, with pain that seems to stem from the middle of the chest. For other people, GERD does not have any symptoms.

The risk of esophageal cancer is higher among people with GERD because it can cause Barrett’s esophagus. If GERD is left untreated, the cells that line the esophagus begin to change in ways that make cancer more likely. Identifying and curing this condition before it turns into cancer is an important way to prevent it.

Pain around the chest or while swallowing, in addition to trouble swallowing, could be a warning sign for esophageal cancer. Other symptoms could be:

  • Anemia
  • Bone pain
  • Chronic cough
  • Esophageal bleeding
  • Hiccups
  • Hoarseness
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of esophageal cancer, especially if you have a history of GERD, so that you can be screened. Earlier treatment often leads to improved outcomes.

Treatment for Esophageal Cancer

Treatment for esophageal cancer is personalized for each person. It is mainly directed by the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis.

Stage 0 esophageal cancers are considered high-grade dysplasia, a type of pre-cancer. Then, the stages range from stage I to IV, going up to indicate how much the cancer has spread.

In general, treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these treatments. Surgery and radiation offer localized treatments, while chemotherapy and even newer opportunities such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy, are considered treatments for the whole body.

Your team of doctors will work together to develop a personalized plan that takes treating your body, mind and spirit into consideration.

It’s our goal to deliver the most advanced and coordinated care possible for people who have esophageal cancer, while focusing on achieving positive outcomes and a better quality of life. Learn more about the AdventHealth Cancer Institute’s esophageal cancer care.

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