Topic updated: January 2013

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the esophagus

The esophagus is the hollow, muscular tube that moves food and liquid from the throat to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including mucous membrane, muscle, and connective tissue. Esophageal cancer starts at the inside lining of the esophagus and spreads outward through the other layers as it grows.

The two most common forms of esophageal cancer are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancerous):

Smoking, heavy alcohol use, and Barrett's esophagus can affect the risk of developing esophageal cancer

Risk factors include the following:

  • Tobacco use.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Barrett's esophagus: A condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have changed or been replaced with abnormal cells that could lead to cancer of the esophagus. Gastric reflux (the backing up of stomach contents into the lower section of the esophagus) may irritate the esophagus and, over time, cause Barrett's esophagus.
  • Older age.
  • Being male.
  • Being African-American.

The most common signs of esophageal cancer are painful or difficult swallowing and weight loss

These and other symptoms may be caused by esophageal cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Painful or difficult swallowing.
  • Weight loss.
  • Pain behind the breastbone.
  • Hoarseness and cough.
  • Indigestion and heartburn.

Tests that examine the esophagus are used to detect (find) and diagnose esophageal cancer

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Barium swallow: A series of x-rays of the esophagus and stomach. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called an upper GI series.
  • Esophagoscopy: A procedure to look inside the esophagus to check for abnormal areas. An esophagoscope is inserted through the mouth or nose and down the throat into the esophagus. An esophagoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. The biopsy is usually done during an esophagoscopy. Sometimes a biopsy shows changes in the esophagus that are not cancer but may lead to cancer.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the esophagus, involves the whole esophagus, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The patient's general health.

When esophageal cancer is found very early, there is a better chance of recovery. Esophageal cancer is often in an advanced stage when it is diagnosed. At later stages, esophageal cancer can be treated but rarely can be cured. Taking part in one of the clinical trials being done to improve treatment should be considered. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To read the rest of this great article from the National Cancer Institute.

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