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What Is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer occurs in the esophagus – a long hollow tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. Your esophagus carries food you swallow to your stomach to be digested. Esophageal cancer usually begins in the cells that line the inside of the esophagus and can occur anywhere along the esophagus.

What Causes Esophageal Cancer?

It is currently unclear what causes esophageal adenocarcinoma. This type of cancer occurs when cells in your esophagus develop mutations, or errors, in their DNA; these mutations make cells grow and divide out of control. The abnormal cells accumulate and form a tumor in the esophagus that can grow to invade nearby structures and spread to other parts of the body. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Esophageal Cancer ?

Early esophageal cancer can cause no signs or symptoms.

Signs and symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weight loss without trying
  • Chest pain, pressure or burning
  • Worsening indigestion or heartburn
  • Coughing or hoarseness

How Is Esophageal Cancer Diagnosed?

A scope is used to examine your esophagus, called an endoscopy procedure. During the endoscopy, your physician passes a hollow tube that has a lens down into your throat and esophagus; this helps the physician examine your esophagus. A sample of tissue may be collected and sent to a lab to perform a biopsy. 

If you are diagnosed with esophageal adenocarcinoma, the stage of cancer will be determined by your physician, and treatment options will be discussed at this time. 

How Is Esophageal Cancer Treated?

What treatments you receive for esophageal cancer are based on the types of cells involved in your cancer, your cancer’s stage, your overall health and your preferences for treatment.

Treatment options include:

  • Surgery; surgery to remove the cancer can be used alone or in combination of other treatments.
  • Chemotherapy; this is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs are usually used before or after surgery. Chemotherapy can also be combined with radiation therapy. In patients with advanced cancer that has spread beyond the esophagus, chemotherapy may be used alone to help relieve signs and symptoms caused by the cancer
  • Radiation therapy; this kind of therapy uses high-powered energy beams to kill cancer cells. Radiation can come from a machine outside your body that aims the beams at your cancer, or radiation can be placed in your body near the cancer called, brachytherapy.

Can Esophageal Cancer Be Prevented?

Steps to reduce your risk of esophageal cancer include:

  • Stop smoking; if you smoke, ask your physician helpful ways to quit. Medications and counseling are available, and if you do not use tobacco, do not start.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all; if you drink, limit yourself on the amount of alcohol you drink on a day-to-day basis.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables; add a variety of each to your diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight; if you are overweight, ask your physician how you can manage your weight better.