Esophageal Cancer: Important Things You Need to Know

  • The esophagus in adults is a muscular tube about 10 inches long that helps move food from the mouth to the stomach. It is composed of a mucosal lining, submucosa, muscle tissue and an outer covering layer of cells called the adventitia above the diaphragm and the serosa below the diaphragm.
  • Cancer cells are malignant forms of body cells that often grow to form tissue masses or tumors that can spread to other organs.
  • The two main types of esophageal cancer are adenocarcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.
  • Risk factors for both types are age 65 or greater, male sex, smoking, heavy drinking, a diet poor in fruits and vegetables, obesity, acid reflux, and Barrett’s esophagus.
  • Common symptoms of esophageal cancer include food getting stuck in the esophagus and vomiting, painwith swallowing, chest and/or back pain, heartburn, weight loss, and a hoarse voice.
  • Diagnosis is performed by a barium swallow test, endoscopy, and biopsy (definitive test).
  • There are five stages of esophageal cancer (stages 0 to IV), with 0 being the least invasive and IV the most aggressive with spread to distant organs.
  • Treatment of this cancer is individually based on the patient’s health and cancer stage; the options vary from surgery,chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of these options (also, some patients may be considered for laser or photodynamic therapy
    • Surgery for this cancer may involve part or all of the esophagus; other structures (part of the stomach, lymph nodes or other parts of affected organs may be removed).
    • Radiation therapy uses high energy rays focused to kill cancer cells; it is often used together with chemotherapy.
    • Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells; it is often used together with radiation and/or surgery and often requires cycles or repeated doses of drugs.
    • In general, patients are encouraged to get a second opinion about their diagnosis and treatment for esophageal cancer.
    • Side effects of treatment for esophageal cancer may include the need for supportive care to control pain, infections such as pneumonia, difficulty in swallowing, depression, nausea, vomiting, requiring a feeding tube, requiring a special diet, weight loss, and may need vitamin and mineral supplements
    • Follow-up care for monitoring and or additional treatments is usually required.
    • Supportive care can be provided for esophageal cancer patients; this should be done by the patient’s treatment team, as well as by social workers, counselors, clergy, and many others.
    • Research about esophageal cancer is ongoing; the treating doctors may be able to link patients to other researchers that are doing clinical trials of the newest treatments for this cancer.

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