Digestion is a complex process, and while you may not think about the trip food makes from your lips to your stomach, you’d be surprised at what a big role the esophagus plays in this progression. The esophagus is like a super slide from mouth to belly that keeps food from going in the windpipe or coming back up. And just like the rest of the body, the esophagus is susceptible to cancer.
The two main types of cancer that affect the esophagus are squamous cell esophageal cancer and esophageal adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell esophageal cancer is the more likely of the two, and forms in the cells of the interior lining of the esophagus. Esophageal adenocarcinoma develops nearer the stomach, in tissue found at the base of the esophagus.
Esophageal Cancer Risk Factors
Several factors influence the risk of esophageal cancer and for the best chance at long-term survival, early detection and immediate treatment is imperative. People with a higher risk of developing the disease should learn and stay alert for early warning signs. Factors that up the chances for facing esophageal cancer are:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease – or chronic acid reflux disease, your chances of developing Barrett’s esophagus increase, and in turn, so are is the likelihood of developing esophageal cancer.
- Drinking and smoking to excess can significantly raise your risk of esophageal cancer.
- Diet – The foods you eat and beverages you drink can have an adverse affect on overall health and increase your chances of obesity and possibly developing esophageal cancer. The body needs a good balance of fruits and vegetables to maintain optimal health and decrease the risk of all cancers. New research points to the frequent consumption of hot liquids as another possible risk factor, but more testing is needed.
- Age and Gender – Typically, men are more likely to get esophageal cancer than women. The risk increases after the age of 65 for men and women.
- Environment – Exposure to certain chemicals and atypical hazards, like radiation therapy, dry cleaning solutions, and silica dust can increase a person’s risk for esophageal cancer.
Esophageal Cancer Symptoms
Unfortunately, esophageal cancer can be quite advanced before any obvious symptoms appear, but here are some warning signs that should never be ignored:
- Difficulty eating and swallowing – Food, especially meat and bread, might be harder to swallow than they used to be. The more advanced the cancer the more painful or difficult swallowing becomes. It might even seem like food is getting lodged in your throat, and it may try to come back up before you can force it down. Because of this, heartburn symptoms are not uncommon. If diagnosed with esophageal cancer, changing your diet to soft foods that are easier to swallow and chew well will help overcome this difficulty.
- Hoarse voice – A symptom that may or may not be noticeable is growing hoarseness when speaking. Could be accompanied by frequent bouts of hiccups and/or vomiting blood.
- Weight loss – Due to difficulty eating and swallowing, weight loss with no other obvious cause can be a sign of esophageal cancer.
- Throat pain – Throat pain is a likely cause for the swallowing difficulty, but can include pain around the breastbone and even between the shoulder blades.
Since the symptoms of esophageal cancer don’t usually show up until the disease is advanced, it has often spread to other organs before detection and the prognosis is not good. People who catch the cancer before it has an opportunity to spread to other organs stand a better chance of winning the battle against esophageal cancer, with a five-year survival rate of 80-90 percent after treatment.
Esophageal cancer is less common than other types, with approximately 18,000 to 20,000 new cases reported every year in the US.
Early detection and prevention are key to surviving esophageal cancer. Prevention begins with a healthy diet and lifestyle, and will increase your chances to remain cancer free. If you already have Barrett’s esophagus or gastroesophagealacid reflux, monitor it closely with regular doctor visits.