Understanding Esophageal Cancer
- Esophageal cancer is a disease that causes cancer cells to form in the tissues of the esophagus, a hollow, muscular tube that food and liquid move through.
- Several lifestyle factors, like smoking or heavy alcohol use, can increase a person’s risk of developing esophageal cancer.
- The disease can be tough to treat because it is often diagnosed late.
- It’s important to be aware of symptoms that may indicate esophageal cancer, such as pain/difficulty swallowing, weight loss, and pain behind the breastbone.
Several lifestyle factors, like smoking or heavy alcohol use, can increase a person’s risk of developing esophageal cancer. About 20,640 new cases of esophageal cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, according to American Cancer Society estimates, and it is more common among men. About 16,510 new cases will be diagnosed in men, while 4,130 will be diagnosed in women. More than 16,000 people on average pass away from the disease every year.Read More
Esophageal cancer symptomsUnfortunately, symptoms can be a bit vague, so those experiencing them may not think cancer right away. Still, it’s important to be aware of signs of this disease, which include:
- Pain/difficulty swallowing
- Weight loss
- Pain behind the breastbone
- A lump under the skin
“Try to get diagnosed early,” Dr. Stiles said. “For esophageal cancer, that means getting screened, getting endoscopies if you have any symptoms. The problem with esophageal cancer is it can mimic a lot of other things. You lose a little weight, have a little trouble swallowing, have a little heartburn—those are tough symptoms to pin down sometimes and often leads to patients with esophageal cancer presenting with later disease.”
Staging esophageal cancer
The two most common types of esophageal cancer are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma (which forms in the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the esophagus)
- Adenocarcinoma (cancer begins in the glandular cells, or the cells in the lining of the esophagus that produce and release fluids like mucus)
After you receive an esophageal cancer diagnosis, your doctor will need to determine the type, as well as the stage. Both types of esophageal cancer are broken up into five stages (0, 1, 2, 3, and 4).
“Once you do get diagnosed, ask what’s the stage,” Dr. Stiles said. “Patients should never be afraid to push doctors and say, ‘What is my stage? What are the treatment options at my stage? Do I have less invasive treatment options? Do I need multi-modality therapy?’ That means therapy with more than just surgery or more than just radiation with chemotherapy.”
Dr. Stiles stressed that patients with esophageal cancer must be advocates for their own disease and speak up about treatment concerns, and what other treatment options or routes may be available in their situation.