Esophageal cancer forms inside the esophagus, which is the muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Esophageal cancer is not as common as some other cancers, such as breast, lung, and prostate cancer. But the number of people with one particular type of esophageal cancer, called adenocarcinoma, has risen dramatically in the past few decades. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer in the U.S. Let’s talk about more about it, including what symptoms you should be aware of.
What causes esophageal cancer?
Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what causes esophageal cancer. It is thought that chronic irritation of the inner lining of the esophagus may contribute to causing changes in cells within the esophagus that can make them grow and divide out of control.
Here are some of the things that cause irritation in the cells of the esophagus that appear to increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer:
- Having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Drinking alcohol
- Having Barrett’s esophagus, which is the name given to precancerous changes in the esophagus
- Being obese
- A steady habit of drinking very hot liquids
- Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- Having bile reflux (reflux of bile from the gall bladder)
- Having an esophageal sphincter that won’t relax (called achalasia), which usually cause trouble swallowing
- A history of radiation treatment to the chest or upper abdomen
What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?
- Weight loss without trying
- Difficulty swallowing
- Progressively worsening heartburn or indigestion
- Coughing or hoarseness
- Chest pain or pressure, or a burning sensation in the chest.
How is the diagnosis of esophageal cancer made?
- Barium swallow test – You swallow a liquid containing barium, then have X-rays. The barium will show the contour of your esophagus on the X-ray.
- Endoscopy or EGD – This involves your doctor putting a flexible lighted tube through your mouth and throat, into your esophagus. During the EGD, a biopsy can be done of any suspicious areas to send to the lab for testing.
- CT scan of the chest – Can show the tissues in the esophagus.
What can you do to help reduce your risk of esophageal cancer?
- If you have been told that you have Barrett’s esophagus, be sure to maintain follow up with your doctor and undergo screening tests when recommended.
- Quit smoking
- Avoid alcohol consumption or drink only in moderation
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, talk with your doctor or one of our dieticians about strategies to help you lose weight.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, aiming for a variety of colors.
- If you have GERD, follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding treatment as well as lifestyle precautions you should take.
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Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor