Sadly, Eddie Money, the musician who was known for hits such as “Baby Hold On” and “Take Me Home Tonight,” recently passed away after battling stage 4 esophageal cancer. The singer also had an unrelated history of heart problems, which led him to have heart valve surgery in July of 2019. It was in August of this year that he announced his esophageal cancer diagnosis.
Unfortunately, Money was not alone in his fight.
The American Cancer Society estimates that about 17,650 new esophageal cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019, with just over 16,000 people losing their lives to this disease.
Interestingly, esophageal cancer affects significantly more men than women in the U.S. In a lifetime, the risk for men is about 1 in 132, and for women, 1 in 455.
So what is esophageal cancer and what’s your best defense to protect your whole health?
Risk Factors for Esophageal Cancer
Esophageal cancer affects the esophagus, or the tube that connects your throat to your stomach.
“The exact cause for esophageal is not known, but certain factors increase your risk. Lifestyle habits or long-term conditions like GERD can damage the DNA of the esophageal cells, which can lead to developing cancer,” explains Mohamedtaki Tejani, MD, medical director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute.
The risk factors for esophageal cancer include:
- Tobacco and alcohol use
- Long-term acid reflux (GERD)
- Barrett’s esophagus
- Plummer-Vinson syndrome
- Esophageal scarring
- Being age 55 and over
- Being male
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 and Esophageal Cancer
One of the most significant risk factors for developing esophageal cancer is GERD, or gastrointestinal reflux disease.
GERD occurs when stomach acid goes up into the esophagus. It can cause the symptom that many people call “heartburn” and cause pain that seems to stem from the middle of the chest. For others, GERD does not show any symptoms at all.
“The risk of esophageal cancer is higher in those with GERD because it can cause Barrett’s esophagus, which is caused when the lining of the esophagus is exposed to stomach acid long-term. This changes the esophageal cells and over time, it can lead to dysplastic cells becoming cancerous,” explains Irteza Inayat, MD, gastroenterologist at AdventHealth.
Symptoms and Screening for Esophageal Cancer
Pain around the chest or while swallowing, in addition to trouble swallowing, could be a warning sign for esophageal cancer.
Other symptoms could be:
- Weight loss
- Chronic cough
- Bone pain
- Bleeding esophageal bleeding/anemia
“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 for patients,” says Dr. Tejani.
Dr. Inayat adds, “We work closely with the team at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute to diagnose esophageal cancer early and provide treatment options that offer patients the most hope.”
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 as an indication of how much the cancer has spread.
In Money’s case, he was diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer, which means it had progressed significantly.
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 to the whole body (meaning they are systemic).
Your team of doctors, like Dr. Inayat and Dr. Tejani, 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 patients that are effected by esophageal cancer, while focusing on achieving positive outcomes and a positive quality of life,” concludes Dr. Tejani. Learn more about the AdventHealth Cancer Institute’s esophageal cancer care.