Esophageal cancer occurs in the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Although survival rates have improved over the years, esophageal cancer is usually diagnosed when it has advanced and is more difficult to treat.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 16,470 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and about 14,280 deaths will result from the disease, which affects men three to four times more often than women and 50% more African Americans than Caucasians. Populations in certain regions of the world experience a much higher incidence of esophageal cancer than those in the United States.
Types of Esophageal Cancer
Squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the cells lining the esophagus. This type of esophageal cancer is more common in African-Americans.
Adenocarcinoma occurs in glandular tissue, most often in the lower part of the esophagus near the stomach. It is the most common type of esophageal cancer. Adenocarcinomas are more common among Caucasians.
Esophageal Cancer Symptoms
Esophageal cancer symptoms of are often not evident during its early stages. Even though symptoms may not mean cancer, people should consider contacting a doctor when experiencing the following symptoms:
• Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
• Pain, pressure or burning in the throat or chest
• Weight loss
• Persistent hiccups
• Chronic cough
• Long-term history of smoking
• Consumption of alcohol, especially when combined with smoking
• Barrett’s Esophagus: a condition in which chronic acid reflux causes changes in the cells lining the lower esophagus, increasing the risk of adenocarcinoma
• Achalasia: a disease in which the esophagus fails to move food into the stomach properly
• Tylosis: a rare, inherited disorder that causes excess skin to grow on the soles of the feet and palms and has a near 100% chance of developing into esophageal cancer
• Esophageal webs: flaps of tissue that protrude into the esophagus, making swallowing difficult
• Lye or other caustic substances: when ingested, such substances can cause scarring that may progress to cancer years later
Diagnosing esophageal cancer can be done in various ways, including:
X-rays of the gastrointestinal tract.
Esophagoscopy: a thin tube is inserted into the mouth to examine the inside of the esophagus. This procedure can also be used to collect cell samples from the stomach for analysis.
CT scans are used after a positive diagnosis to determine the extent, or spread of the cancer.
Treatment for esophageal cancer depends on the stage.
Surgery is the most common treatment for esophageal cancer. There are two surgical techniques:
Esophagectomy: The cancerous portions of the esophagus and neighboring lymph nodes are removed.
Radical esophagectomy: The entire esophagus and the top portion of the stomach are removed.
Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, is most often combined with radiation therapy.
Photodynamic therapy: laser-sensitive chemicals are injected into the tumor site. A laser beam then targets the chemicals to destroy the tumor.
Cancer is a journey that no one needs to take alone. There are many forms of support to help you through every stage: diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. Whether you meet with other cancer survivors like yourself, use complementary therapies or individual coping mechanisms, support is available. Listed below are just some of the ways to find help and hope.
Getting together with other cancer patients in a support group is a valuable coping tool. Support groups are usually focused on a single disease or topic, such as breast cancer survivors or people coping with life-changing side effects from their cancer or cancer therapy. These groups allow participants to meet others like themselves and seek strength from each other. Most major cities and cancer hospitals offer support groups that meet weekly or monthly. There are also dozens of online support Web sites or message boards for those who may not have access to a traditional meeting.
Complementary therapies are used in conjunction with cancer treatment, in an effort to reduce treatment side effects, ease depression and anxiety and help cancer patients take their mind off the negative aspects of their situation. Complementary therapies may include mind-body exercises like yoga, Tai Chi and Qi gong; visualization or guided imagery; using art or music as therapy and self-expression and traditional Eastern medicine such as acupuncture.
Find complementary therapies at MD Anderson
Staying physically active as much as possible during cancer treatment has many positive benefits. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, a hormone that helps elevate mood, as well as decreasing feelings of fatigue.
Exercises for cancer patients can range from simple stretches done in the bed or chair, to more active pursuits such as walking or light gardening work. However, it’s important not to push yourself too hard. Check with your doctor before attempting any physical activity to make sure you are up to it.
Many people find it helpful to keep a journal of their cancer treatment experience. It may be as simple as recording symptoms and side effects into a notebook, or may include personal emotions and opinions about what they may be going through. Journals can be private, like a diary, or shared with loved ones and even strangers.
Increasingly, people are turning to the Internet to share their cancer journey with the world at large and to seek out others with similar experiences. Many cancer patients have begun their own Web log, or “blog” to publicize their battle with cancer. Twitter, a mini-blogging technology that limits posts to 140 characters, has also proven to be a helpful tool for cancer patients to keep friends updated and reach out to others.