The esophagus is a tubular path through which food is carried from your throat and delivered to your stomach for digestion. The walls contain muscles which contract in order to move the items you swallow into your stomach. Esophageal cancer (EC) can form in the cells with the esophagus. While this type of cancer is not as prevalent in the U.S. as other types, over 10,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.
Below, we’ll explore some of the factors that can lead to the condition and describe who is most at risk. We’ll also take a look at the symptoms that typically manifest in patients who suffer from the disease.
Causes And Risk Factors
The root cause of esophageal cancer is still largely a mystery. Like most forms of the disease, the cells within the esophagus mutate. Those mutations cause them to split and grow. Soon, the growth of mutated cells leads to a tumor within the organ. Eventually, the disease spreads to other sites throughout the body, making a localized approach to treatment far more difficult.
While the causes of EC are not entirely understood, the medical community has identified a series of risk factors that can influence a patient’s susceptibility to the condition. For example, a person’s age plays a role; those who are over 60 years old are more likely to develop EC. So too, are men more vulnerable than women.
The items we consume or use can also be risk factors. For example, heavy use of alcohol and tobacco products (and especially when used together) can lead to esophageal cancer. If a person’s diet is lacking in fruits and vegetables, their risk increases. Obesity is also a factor.
There are physiological elements that can influence a person’s vulnerability to EC. For example, gastroesophageal reflux disease (commonly called GERD) can lead to heartburn as the esophageal sphincter fails to prevent the flow of food from the stomach back into the esophagus.
Recognizing The Symptoms
One of the first signs of esophageal cancer is a difficulty – or discomfort – when swallowing. This can eventually lead to weight loss as a patient becomes less capable of consuming bulky foods such as bread. As a tumor forms, their ability to swallow declines further and often leads to coughing and vomiting. If the surface of the tumor is sensitive, it will bleed. The result is that a person suffering from EC will often begin to vomit blood.
There is a much greater likelihood of treating esophageal cancer successfully (that is, eliminating the cancerous cells and affected tissue) if it is diagnosed early. Patients who manifest any of the symptoms described above should see their doctor immediately. If the disease can be identified while still in Stage I (i.e. still localized and in the top portion of the esophagus), it can usually be cured.
How Is Esophageal Cancer Treated?
Patients who may be suffering from esophageal cancer (EC) can have their doctor perform a number of tests to determine whether cancerous cells exists. Treatment can only follow a clear diagnosis. For example, a physician might ask the patient to drink a solution that contains barium. The barium coats the esophagus and allows him or her to better examine the area through x-rays. This test is called a barium swallow
An esophagoscopy may also be performed. A physician will insert an endoscope into the esophagus (after an anesthetic has been administered) to look for an abnormal growth. If he or she finds such a growth, tissue is collected for further study (called a biopsy). A diagnosis often follows the biopsy.
In this article, we’ll explore how esophageal cancer is treated after it has been properly diagnosed. We’ll explain the different stages of the disease as well as the four most common forms of treatment used today.
Stages I Through IV
Once esophageal cancer has been diagnosed, the doctor will identify how far it has spread – if it has at all. This will influence the manner of treatment that is used. In Stage I, the cancerous cells are still localized within the esophagus and are found within the outer lining. In Stage II, the affected area may include deeper portions of the lining. The cancerous cells may have also begun to spread to the lymph nodes. Stage III is characterized by a further advance of the disease into the deepest portions of the esophagus. When the disease has begun spreading to other sites throughout the body, it has reached Stage IV.
4 Treatment Strategies
In most cases, a surgical procedure called esophagectomy is performed. During this procedure, a portion of the esophagus is removed. The remaining portion of the organ is connected (through a tube or the intestine) to the stomach. Chemotherapy is also common. If the disease has spread, the chemicals are administered orally or by injection to reach any affected sites through the bloodstream.
A doctor might also use radiation therapy to destroy cancerous cells. This form of treatment can be administered internally with catheters and wires, or externally by placing a radiation emitting machine next to the patient’s body. Laser treatment can also be used to target and destroy cancerous cells, though it is far less effective once the disease has reached Stage IV. Doctors occasionally use photodynamic therapy in which chemicals are absorbed into the affected area. Then, a special light is used to activate the chemicals, thereby destroying the cancerous cells.
Like all forms of cancer, esophageal cancer is much simpler to treat if it is diagnosed while in its early stages. Once it spreads to other sites in the body, the available treatment strategies become limited as doctors are forced to take a systemic approach.