Esophageal cancer is a highly complex and aggressive disease that affects the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. However, contrary to what you may have heard, esophageal cancer is often curable when it's in an early stage. That's why early detection is critically important for good outcomes.
Here are six facts about risks, symptoms and treatment of esophageal cancer:
Trouble swallowing is the most common symptom of esophageal cancer. It feels like food is lodged in the throat and the discomfort gets worse over time.
Severe acid reflux and heartburn put you at risk for esophageal cancer. Other symptoms include unintentional weight loss, chest pain and worsening of indigestion.
Family history provides critical information when it comes to risk factors. If your family has a history of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux disease, you may be more susceptible to esophageal cancer.
GERD can trigger Barrett’s esophagus. About five percent of patients with chronic GERD will develop Barrett’s esophagus, which occurs when the lining of the esophagus becomes thickened and red by damage from acid reflux. A low percentage of patients with Barrett’s esophagus develop adenocarcinoma – cancer that starts in gland cells located near the stomach. Patients with Barrett’s esophagus have a greater risk of developing esophageal cancer than the rest of the population.
Cure rates of early stage esophageal cancers are more than 90 percent. That's why it's important to talk with your doctor if you have symptoms, such as trouble swallowing, chest pain, weight loss, worsening indigestion or heartburn, hoarse voice or constant cough.
Treatment depends on the stage of the disease. Very early-stage esophageal cancers can be treated by endoscopic resection (an outpatient procedure to remove abnormal tissue) or surgical resection (removing part or all of the esophagus). However, tumors can easily spread into the lymph nodes and quickly progress to a locally advanced stage. Treatment for these later stages typically involves combined chemotherapy and radiation followed by surgery.
Talk with your doctor
When it comes to cancer, early detection saves lives. The earlier esophageal cancers are diagnosed, the higher the cure rate.
That's why it's important to talk with your family doctor or gastroenterologist, particularly if you have painful acid reflux or difficulty swallowing. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist for advanced testing and treatments.
Urs von Holzen, MD, is a surgical oncologist at Goshen Center for Cancer Care. He has a special interest in thoracic and esophageal cancers and minimally invasive techniques to remove tumors.