Esophageal Cancer

What is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer occurs when malignant cells develop within the tissues of the esophagus.

Adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common forms of esophageal cancer. Adenocarcinoma will start within the cells that are responsible for creating and releasing fluids that include mucus. Squamous cell carcinoma, on the other hand, starts within the flat cells that line the esophagus.

Individuals who drink a lot of alcohol or smoke are at an increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma. Those who suffer with gastroesophageal reflux disease or Barrett esophagus might be at an increased risk of developing adenocarcinoma.

What are the Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer?

Unfortunately, because early stage esophageal cancer does not typically cause any symptoms, the disease is often found at advanced stages.

Symptoms include

  • Unintended weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Burning, pressure, or pain within the chest
  • Heartburn or indigestion that worsens
  • Hoarseness or coughing

Esophageal Cancer Causes

As with most cancers, the cause of esophageal cancer is not quite clear. However, most experts link it to mutations in the DNA of the cells of the esophagus. These mutations trigger abnormal cell multiplication. In addition, these mutations disrupt the trigger for these cells to die when they should, resulting in the development of tumors that eventually become cancerous.

Lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity are believed to be responsible for up to 90 percent of all esophageal cancer cases. In fact, obesity is linked to 25 percent of esophageal cancer cases in men and 10 percent of esophageal cancer cases in women. The more obese an individual is, the more likely they are to get this cancer.

Your risk of getting esophageal cancer increases the longer you smoke a pipe, use snuff, chew tobacco or use betel liquid. Tobacco use is linked to two types of esophageal cancer: adenocarcinoma and squamous cell cancer. Alcohol consumption also increases your risk of developing squamous cell esophageal cancer.

Other esophageal cancer risk factors include age (where your risk of developing the disease increases with age), diet, underlying medical conditions like achalasia and a condition referred to as Barrett’s esophagus.

How is Esophageal Cancer Treated?

Treatment for esophageal cancer will depend upon the type of cells that are involved, the stage of the cancer, and a patient’s overall state of health.

Treatment includes

Surgery can be used on its own or as part of a combination of treatments. Surgical treatments can focus on removing small tumors, removing a part of the esophagus, or removing a portion of the esophagus and the top part of the stomach. In some cases, the entire esophagus is removed.

A patient may also require the insertion of a feeding tube to receive adequate nutrition if they are having trouble swallowing. Also, surgery may be required to open the esophagus if obstruction has occurred.

Chemotherapy and radiation can also be used to treat esophageal cancer.

Esophageal Cancer Prevention

Smoking is one of the most important esophageal cancer prevention measures. If you smoke, just quit. Now. Next to tobacco is alcohol. Drinking in moderation, or giving up the bottle altogether, will greatly lower your risk of getting squamous cell esophageal cancer.

Managing gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, will also go a long way in helping you prevent esophageal cancer. Look out for GERD symptoms like persistent heart burns, chest pains, and sore throat. Seek treatment as soon as you are diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus.

Maintaining a healthy weight is also crucial when preventing most complications including esophageal cancer. Obesity can contribute to GERD because excel abdominal weight may push acid to the esophagus, thus increasing your risk of developing this type of cancer.

Other esophageal cancer prevention measures include proper management of achalasia as well as prevention of Human Papillomavirus Infection.

Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 20, 2017