While esophageal cancer accounts for only 1% of cancers diagnosed in the United States, that still amounts to more than 20,000 new cases each year. Knowing the symptoms of the condition can help you keep an eye on your health.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 20,640 cases of esophageal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, including thousands of cases in Georgia alone. The condition is much more common in men than in women, and it’s diagnosed most often among white Americans.
In the past, the survival rate for esophageal cancer was relatively low. But in recent decades, advancements in detection and treatment have improved the survival rate, especially when the condition is diagnosed in early stages.
Because there is no routine screening recommended for those at average risk of esophageal cancer, it’s important to pay attention to your body and report any suspicious changes or symptoms to a medical provider. Step one is knowing the symptoms of the condition.
What are common risk factors for esophageal cancer?
While heavy alcohol drinking and cigarette smoking have traditionally been considered factors increasing esophageal cancer risk, nowadays chronic untreated or undertreated reflux disease are also common precursors and should not be ignored.
Patients with severe heartburn should ask healthcare providers about the need to see a gastroenterologist, and patients with reflux currently seeing a gastroenterologist should be diligent in keeping their follow-up appointments. Patients with reflux disease, that does not respond well to medical treatment, must also get regular endoscopy to look for cancerous changes.
What are the warning signs of esophageal cancer?
Esophageal cancer is cancer that starts in the esophagus, which is the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. In many cases, those with this type of cancer won’t experience any symptoms until the cancer has advanced.
Symptoms related to esophageal cancer can be easily overlooked because they are similar to symptoms that occur in everyday life or with minor illnesses. Esophageal cancer symptoms may include:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Chronic cough that’s usually unproductive (meaning without mucus)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Throat pain
- Unexplained Weight loss
As the cancer progresses, more severe symptoms may occur, including bone pain and esophageal bleeding that may result in dark stool.
If you experience any of these symptoms, particularly in combination with each other or with no known cause, talk with your medical provider about what you’re experiencing. In particular, any difficulty swallowing must never be ignored and must be diligently evaluated. It’s always better to be safe and have symptoms checked out.
How is esophageal cancer detected?
Because there is no routine screening for this type of cancer, most cases of esophageal cancer are diagnosed after a person experiences symptoms.
If your medical provider suspects that you may have cancer of the esophagus, he or she will use a combination of tests to confirm a diagnosis. If you’re having trouble swallowing—the most common symptom of esophageal cancer—you might undergo a contrast swallow test, which identifies abnormal areas in the lining of the esophagus. An endoscopy is, usually, the necessary next step as a swallow test does not always reveal a smaller cancer in the esophagus. An endoscopy also allows us to get biopsies of suspicious areas in the esophagus at the same time.
Other tests, including CT scans and PET scans may be recommended to help visualize the esophagus and the rest of the body.
How is esophageal cancer treated?
Treatment for cancer of the esophagus will vary depending on a number of factors, including the specific type of cancer found and the staging of the condition. Treatment typically includes multiple types of therapy to remove the cancerous cells and inhibit their growth.
A treatment plan for esophageal cancer may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and other therapies to remove cancerous cells and inhibit cancer growth.
Northeast Georgia Health System offers a comprehensive program for esophageal cancer. For more information about NGHS Cancer Services, visit nghs.com/cancer-services.