Health Care

What to Know About Esophageal Cancer

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The American Cancer Society estimates that about 20,640 new esophageal cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2022, with 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 1 in 455 for women.

What is esophageal cancer and what’s your best defense to protect your whole health? We’re here to answer those questions.

What Is Esophageal Cancer?

Your esophagus, a tube that connects your throat to your stomach, helps move the food you swallow from the back of your throat to your stomach to be digested.

Esophageal cancer is a tumor that occurs in the esophagus. This causes difficulty in swallowing, chest pain, cough, sudden weight loss and heartburn. It’s the sixth most common cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide.

Risk Factors for Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer rates appear to be higher in regions with heavier tobacco and alcohol use and higher rates of obesity. The good news is that healthy lifestyle and nutrition choices can lower your risk of getting it.

While the exact cause of esophageal is not known, lifestyle habits or long-term conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can damage the DNA of the esophageal cells, 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
  • Long-term acid reflux
  • Obesity
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome
  • Tobacco and alcohol use

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

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

The Relationship Between Untreated GERD 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 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 people 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.

Symptoms and Screening for Esophageal Cancer

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

Other symptoms include:

  • Bleeding or anemia
  • Bone pain
  • Chronic cough
  • 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 for patients. We work 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 patient and is mainly determined by the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis.

Stage 0 esophageal cancer is considered high-grade dysplasia, a type of pre-cancer. Then, the stages range from stage 1 to 4, going up as an indication of how much the cancer has spread.

Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination. Surgery and radiation offer localized treatments, while chemotherapy and even newer opportunities such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy are considered whole-body treatments.

Your team of doctors will work together to develop a personalized plan that treats your body, mind and spirit. It’s our goal to deliver the most advanced and coordinated care possible for patients with esophageal cancer, while focusing on achieving positive outcomes and a better quality of life. Learn more about our esophageal cancer care at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute.

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