Esophageal cancer occurs when cancer cells develop in the esophagus — the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. There are two main types of esophageal cancer:
- Squamous cell cancer — from the cells that line the upper part of the esophagus
- Adenocarcinoma — from the cells in lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach
2014 estimates indicate esophageal cancer is only 1.1 percent of all cancers and the earlier it’s caught, the better the five-year survival rate, currently at 39.6 percent for localized or Stage 1 esophageal cancer.
Esophageal Cancer Risk Factors
Having specific risk factors can increase your chance of developing esophageal cancer. These include:
- Use of tobacco (including smokeless types)
- Excess alcohol use — risk increases with combined alcohol and tobacco use
- Diagnosis of Barrett esophagus, which itself can be caused by gastric reflux
- Achalasia — chronic dilation of the esophagus
- Radiation therapy
- Damaged esophagus from toxic substances, such as lye
- History of head and/or neck cancer
- Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
- Certain rare genetic conditions, such as Plummer Vinson syndrome and tylosis
Sex, race and age are also factors. Men are more likely to develop esophageal cancer, as are African-Americans. It’s also more common in people aged 50 years and older.
While there are no current recommendations regarding screening for esophageal cancer, those at higher risk are often watched more closely, and may undergo regular upper endoscopies.
Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer
Esophageal cancer may cause:
- Trouble swallowing
- Painful swallowing
- Weight loss
- Cough (from aspiration)
- Hoarse voice
- Pain in the throat, back, chest
- Nausea, vomiting
- Coughing up blood
- Black tarry stools
- Indigestion or heartburn
“I always urge people to listen to their bodies and be aware and take action when something isn’t right,” said Rachelle Humphrey, RN, nurse navigator specializing in complex GI oncology at Sarah Cannon at TriStar Centennial Medical Center. “Many patients tell me that they noticed a tickle or hoarseness in their throat that accelerated to difficulty swallowing but didn’t seek a doctor’s care right away. If you notice that something isn’t right, always consult your physician.”
Esophageal Cancer Testing
If esophageal cancer is suspected, your doctor may view your esophagus, using any of the following methods:
- CT scan
- PET-CT scan
- Barium swallow — use of contrast material to examine the esophagus with X-ray
- Esophagoscopy with biopsy — examination of esophagus with a lighted scope, and removal of a small sample of esophageal tissue
- Bone scan if spread to the bones is suspected
Treatment for esophageal cancer can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, laser therapy or photodynamic therapy.
Find more information and resources for esophageal cancer at our website.