What is Esophageal Cancer?
The esophagus is the long, hollow tube that runs from your throat to your stomach and it carries food to the stomach to be digested. The wall of the esophagus comprises of several layers of tissue, including the mucous membrane, muscle, and connective tissue. The esophagus and stomach are part of the upper gastrointestinal (digestive) system.
Esophageal cancer usually begins in the cells lining the inside of the esophagus before spreading outwards through the other layers as it grows.
The two most common forms of esophageal cancer are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma (Epidermoid carcinoma) - Squamous cells are thin, flat cells lining the esophagus. This cancer is mostly found in the upper and middle part of the esophagus, but can also occur anywhere along the esophagus.
- Adenocarcinoma - Glandular cells are secretory cells lining the esophagus and they produce and release fluids such as mucus. This cancer usually starts in the lower part of the esophagus, closer to the stomach.
Who is at risk?
- Heavy drinkers of alcohol
- Habitual smokers
- Those with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Those with Barrett's esophagus - a condition in which cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have been changed or replaced with abnormal cells that could develop into esophageal cancer
- Esophageal strictures developing after ingestion of corrosive agents
- Achalasia, a failure of smooth muscle fibres of the esophagus to relax
- Obesity predisposes patient to reflux
*People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor.
What are the signs and symptoms?
- Experience pain or difficulty swallowing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Chest pain, pressure or burning
- Indigestion and heartburn
- Coughing or hoarseness
*A doctor should be consulted if the above symptoms occur.
What can you do to prevent esophageal cancer?
- Quit smoking
- Consume alcohol in moderation
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?
If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned, your doctor may refer you to a specialist after asking about your personal and family medical history and conducting a physical examination.
The following tests are used to diagnose esophageal cancer.
||A hollow tube equipped with a lens (endoscope) will be passed down your throat and into your esophagus. Your doctor will then examine your esophagus for cancer or areas of irritation. Endoscope also provides the opportunity to remove a piece of tissue or sample (biopsy) from your esophagus. The tissue samples will then be sent to a laboratory to test for cancerous cells. Endoscopy ultrasound (EUS) is procedure that combines endoscopy and ultrasound to obtain images from your esophagus for investigations and staging.
In a biopsy, a special scope will be passed down your throat into your esophagus to collect samples of suspicious tissues. The tissue samples will then be sent to a laboratory to test for cancerous cells.
In the event that you are diagnosed with esophageal cancer, your doctor will then work to determine the stage of the cancer. Staging the cancer helps determine the most suitable treatment options.
Find out more about the different stages of esophageal cancer below.
The cancer occurs in the superficial layers of cells lining the esophagus.
The cancer has progressed to deeper layers of the esophagus lining and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
The cancer has spread to the deepest layers of the esophagus wall and to nearby tissues or lymph nodes.
The cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
What are the treatment options?
There are different treatments available for esophageal cancer depending on the stage, type and the position of the cancer. Factors other than the stage of the cancer that might have an impact on your treatment decision include your age, your overall health, and your own preferences. The three main types of treatment include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Surgery is the most common treatment option for esophageal cancer.
- Endoscopy surgery for removal of very small tumours - If the cancer is detected at a very early stage, surgery may be performed to remove the tumours and a fraction of the healthy tissues that surround them. Surgery for very early-stage cancers can be performed using an endoscope which is passed down your throat and into your esophagus.
- Esophagectomy - During esophagectomy, the portion of the esophagus containing the tumour and nearby lymph nodes are removed. The remaining esophagus is then reconnected to the stomach.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to help kill cancer cells and shrink the size of the tumour. It can be given alone or combined with radiotherapy before or after surgery. It is also the treatment of choice if the patient is not suitable for surgery. The drugs are given into a vein or by mouth. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body. In esophageal cancer, multiple chemotherapy sessions are usually required.
Radiation 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 (external beam radiation) or it can be placed inside your body near the cancer (brachytherapy).
Radiation therapy is commonly combined with chemotherapy in the treatment of esophageal cancer. It can be used before or after surgery. Radiation therapy is also used to relieve complications of advanced esophageal cancer, for example, in cases where the tumour grows large enough to obstruct food from passing through your stomach.
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