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Esophageal Cancer: Signs, symptoms & more

Esophagus is a long hollow muscular tube that connects throat and stomach. It is an important part of human digestive system and plays a role in pushing the swallowed food down to the stomach.

What is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer is the cancer of the cells lining the inside of the esophagus. Though the causes are unclear, but sometimes certain factors trigger the mutation of the DNA of normal cells which begin to divide and grow uncontrollably. Asian and African populations are more predisposed to the disease. The esophageal cancer has following four stages:

  1. Stage I: When the cancer is found only in the top layers of the cells lining the esophagus.
  2. Stage II: When the cancer goes into the deeper layers of the esophageal lining or it spreads to the lymph nodes.
  3. Stage III: When the cancer spreads to the wall of the esophagus and has not yet affected the other parts of the body.
  4. Stage IV: When the cancer spreads to the other parts of the body such as liver or lungs.

Types 

Depending on the type of cells where cancer originates, esophageal cancer is of two types:

  1. Squamous Cell Carcinoma, occurring in the upper part of the esophagus, it is the most common type of esophageal cancer. Heavy drinking and smoking are found to trigger this. Squamous cells occur in the top layer of esophagus lining and can grow anywhere along the tube.
  2. Adenocarcinoma originates from the glandular tissue occurring in the lower part of the esophagus near to the opening of the stomach. Acid reflux and obesity are the main triggers for adenocarcinoma.

Signs and Symptoms

Generally there are no symptoms in the early stage. By the time symptoms appear, esophageal cancer has already gone to advanced stages. Symptoms vary from an individual to individual but common ones are listed below:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing (Dysphagia)
  • Indigestion
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive weight loss
  • Chronic cough or choking, especially when lying down
  • Pain in the throat, behind the breastbone or between shoulder blades
  • A burning sensation or feeling of high pressure in chest
  • Coughing up blood

These symptoms resemble many other medical conditions. If any of these worry you, then seek an immediate medical help.

Please note Barrett’s Syndrome is a pre-cancerous condition. It is characterised by chronic acid reflux that increases the risk of esophageal cancer. If you suffer from Barrett’s Syndrome, then particularly seek medical advice on how to take care on routine basis.

 Risk Factors

Presence of certain factors increases the chances of occurrence of the esophageal cancer:

  • Barrett’s Syndrome
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Chewing or smoking tobacco
  • Too much drinking of hot liquids
  • Eating very few fruits and vegetables
  • Obesity
  • Undergoing radiation therapy for the chest and abdomen

Males, especially between 45 to 70 years have three times greater risk of developing esophageal cancer.

 Treatment

If detected early, esophageal cancer has greater chance of treatment. But the challenge is always that esophageal cancer is always detected towards the advanced stages which make it difficult to be treated successfully. Depending on the age, medical history and severity of the cancer, any of the following treatment methods may be used:

  • Surgical removal of the affected part
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Photodynamic methods using special laser light
  • Electrocoagulation

Prevention

We recommend following to prevent esophageal cancer:

  • Exercise regularly for weight management. Avoid weight gain around waist or abdomen
  • Eat thoughtfully. Avoid too much of spicy, fried, fatty and acidic food.
  • If you suffer from chronic acid reflux, check with doctor for antacid medication.
  • Don’t lie down immediately after eating.
  • Sleep elevated, if you have experience frequent acid reflux, especially during night-time.

Watch experts give tips on ear, nose and throat health.

Dr. V. K. Mittal runs us through common ENT diseases and their preventions.

Dr. K. K. Handa talks about the advancements in his department for various ENT related problems.

You can also visit our virtual ENT Clinic for any questions or requests.