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Esophageal cancer is a type of cancer that affects the esophagus, the organ in your body that carries food and liquid from your mouth to your stomach. Esophageal cancer can be successfully treated, but it’s important to know what to expect if you’re diagnosed with the condition.
This guide will provide a comprehensive overview of esophageal cancer, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment options. If you’ve been diagnosed with esophageal cancer or are worried about developing it, this guide will help you understand everything you need to know.
What is esophageal cancer?
Esophageal cancer is a type of cancer that affects the esophagus, the organ in your body that carries food and liquid from your mouth to your stomach. The esophagus is a tube made up of several types of tissue, including:
- Mucous membranes: These are the innermost layers of the esophagus, and they secrete a lubricating fluid that helps food and liquid pass through the esophagus.
- Muscular layers: These layers of muscle contract and relax to move food and liquid through the esophagus.
- Connective tissue: This type of tissue binds together the different structures of the esophagus The most common type of esophageal cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which starts in the mucous membranes.
Another less common type of esophageal cancer, adenocarcinoma, begins in the glandular cells that line the inside of the esophagus
What causes esophageal cancer?
The exact cause of esophageal cancer is unknown, but several risk factors may increase your chances of developing the disease. These include:
- Age: The vast majority of people diagnosed with esophageal cancer are over 55.
- Gender: Men are four times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than women Smoking: Smoking is the most significant risk factor for developing esophageal cancer.
- Alcohol Use: People who drink alcohol heavily are at increased risk for developing esophageal cancer.
- Diet: A diet low in fruits and vegetables may increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
- Obesity: Being overweight or obese may increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): This condition, which causes stomach acid to back up into the esophagus, is a risk factor for developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
- Barrett’s esophagus: This condition, which is a complication of GERD, can increase your risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
- Achalasia: This condition, which makes it difficult for food and liquid to pass through the esophagus, is a risk factor for developing squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus
- Previous treatment for cancer: People who have been treated with radiation therapy for other cancers in the past are at increased risk for developing esophageal cancer
What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?
The most common symptom of esophageal cancer is difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). Other symptoms may include:
- Weight loss without trying
- Pain when swallowing
- Chest pain Heartburn
- Coughing up blood
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor. While other conditions may cause them, they could also be signs of esophageal cancer.
How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects you may have esophageal cancer, they will likely order one or more of the following tests:
- Endoscopy: During this procedure, your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube with a camera through your mouth and into your esophagus. This allows them to get a close look at the inside of your esophagus and look for any abnormal areas.
- Biopsy: If your doctor sees an abnormal area during an endoscopy, they may remove a small piece of tissue (biopsy) for further testing. A biopsy can confirm whether you have cancer.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, may be used to help determine the stage of your esophageal cancer (how far it has spread). These tests can also help your doctor plan your treatment.
Stages of esophageal cancer
There are four stages of esophageal cancer. The stage of your cancer will help guide your treatment decisions.
- Stage I: The cancer is confined to the lining of the esophagus.
- Stage II: Cancer has spread to the muscle layer of the esophagus.
- Stage III: Cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
- Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other body parts, such as the liver or lungs.
The survival rate for each stage is different. People with early-stage cancers (stages I and II) have a higher survival rate than those with late-stage cancers (stages III and IV).
- The 5-year survival rate for people with stage I esophageal cancer is about 85%.
- The 5-year survival rate for people with stage II esophageal cancer is about 50%.
- The 5-year survival rate for people with stage III esophageal cancer is about 30%.
- The 5-year survival rate for people with stage IV esophageal cancer is about 10%.
These survival rates are only estimates. Your actual outlook will depend on many factors, including your overall health and the treatment you receive.
How is esophageal cancer treated?
The treatment for esophageal cancer will depend on the stage of the disease. Treatment options include:
Surgery is the most common treatment for esophageal cancer. The type of surgery you have will depend on the stage of your cancer. Your doctor may recommend a minimally invasive surgery for early-stage cancers called endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR).
This procedure involves removing the cancerous tissue through a tube inserted down your throat. Your doctor may recommend a traditional surgery to remove part or all of the esophagus for more advanced cancers. This is called a partial or total esophagectomy.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. It can be used alone or in combination with surgery. If radiation therapy is used before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy), it may help shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove.
If radiation therapy is used after surgery (adjuvant therapy), it may help kill any remaining cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It can be used alone or in combination with radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is often given before surgery to help shrink the tumor.
Targeted drug therapy:
Targeted drug therapy is a type of cancer treatment that targets specific abnormalities in cancer cells. This type of therapy is often used in combination with chemotherapy.
What are the side effects of esophageal cancer treatment?
The side effects of esophageal cancer treatment will depend on the type of treatment. Common side effects of surgery include pain, infection, and bleeding.
Radiation therapy’s common side effects include fatigue, skin irritation, and nausea. Common side effects of chemotherapy include hair loss, fatigue, and nausea. Targeted drug therapy may cause rash, diarrhea, and fatigue.
How can I prevent esophageal cancer?
- Not smoking
- Eating a healthy diet
- Limiting your alcohol intake
- Avoiding stomach acid reflux
- Maintaining a healthy weight
If you have any of the risk factors for esophageal cancer, talk to your doctor about ways you can reduce your risk. They may recommend regular endoscopies to screen for precancerous changes in the esophagus.
The outlook for people with esophageal cancer depends on many factors, including the stage of the disease. The earlier the cancer is caught, the better the prognosis. People with early-stage cancers have a higher survival rate than those with advanced-stage cancers.
Hence, if you fall into any category of risk factors, get regular screening for early detection and timely cure of cancer.
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