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Esophageal cancer facts

  • The esophagus in adults is a muscular tube about 10 inches long that connects the mouth to the stomach.
  • Cancer or malignant cells are abnormally formed body cells that may grow to form tissue masses or tumors that can spread to other organs.
  • The two main types of esophageal cancer are adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Risk factors for both types include age 65 or older, male sex, smoking, excessive alcohol use, a diet poor in fruits and vegetables, obesity, and acid reflux (GERD) with the formation of Barrett's esophagus.
  • Common symptoms of esophageal cancer include difficulty swallowing with food getting stuck, chest and/or back pain, heartburn, weight loss, persistent cough, hoarseness, weakness, and bleeding.
  • Diagnosis is made by endoscopy, and tissue biopsy, the definitive test where the presence of cancer cells is confirmed using a microscope.
  • 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.
  • Photodynamic therapy may be an option for some patients whose esophageal cancer has not spread (metastasized) and where the tumor size is small.
  • Surgery for this cancer may involve part or all of the esophagus or 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.
  • Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are used to shrink the tumor and usually occur before surgery.
  • Side effects of treatment for esophageal cancer may include the need for supportive care to control pain, infections such as pneumonia, difficulty in swallowing, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and malnutrition. Depression and grief are commonly seen in cancer patients.
  • After surgery, patients may require help with nutrition, including vitamin and mineral supplementation. A feeding tube may be necessary, especially if the esophagus is completely removed or if there is significant residual scarring and narrowing after surgery.
  • 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 and may include palliative-care professionals, including social workers, counselors, clergy, and 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.
  • The National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers an extensive amount of information about cancers, including esophageal cancer (1-800-422-6237) and through their PDQ web site.
Return to Esophageal Cancer

See what others are saying

Comment from: rodney, 55-64 Male (Patient) Published: November 25

I had a burst bowel and when operated on they found esophageal cancer. Six months later I had the esophagus removed. I get terrible pain and nausea and it is now 12 months ago, but that is not long for that operation. I don't know whether it is worth it as recovery is awful. But maybe I will feel better soon. I hope so.

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Comment from: Dianahp, 65-74 Female (Caregiver) Published: August 25

My husband was diagnosed with stage three esophageal cancer in May 2014. He was given radiotherapy and chemotherapy which he had a bad reaction to. My husband developed a perforated bowel, it is suspected that the radiotherapy or chemotherapy may have weakened the area, no one will give me answers. It was decided that although he had limited exposure to the treatment he would go on to have surgery to remove the tumor that was at the junction of his esophagus and stomach. He survived the operation which was not an easy operation, but he went in with hope of a cure. I lost him 20/12/2014.

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