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Esophageal Cancer

What is esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer is a growth of abnormal cells that form tumors in the food tube that connects your throat to your stomach. This tube is called the esophagus.

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

The cause of cancer of the esophagus is not known. Most often people who get cancer of the esophagus are middle-aged or older. It is more common in men than in women. African-Americans are also more likely to get this kind of cancer.

You are more at risk for esophageal cancer if you:

  • Drink a lot of alcohol
  • Smoke or chew tobacco
  • Have had long-term heartburn or have Barrett’s esophagus
  • Are overweight
  • Are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV)

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Trouble swallowing that feels like food is stuck in your throat or behind your breastbone
  • A burning feeling when food is swallowed
  • Heartburn when you drink hot liquids
  • Pain behind the breastbone that does not go away
  • Unexpected weight loss

As the tumor grows, the opening of your esophagus gets narrower. First, you may have trouble swallowing solid foods. Later, soft foods may be hard to swallow. Eventually you may have trouble swallowing even liquids.

Symptoms in later stages of the cancer may include drooling, spitting up pieces of undigested food, and weight loss. Lung infections caused by liquids spilling over into your windpipe are common. You may also have hoarseness and coughing if other tissues near the esophagus are affected by the cancer.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history, including symptoms and possible risk factors, and you will have a physical exam. You may have tests such as:

  • Barium swallow, which means that you will drink a chalky liquid that shows up on X-rays to find out if there is a blockage in your esophagus.
  • Endoscopy, which is a procedure to look at your esophagus with a scope (a thin lighted flexible tube with a camera attached).
  • A biopsy of your esophagus, which may be done during an endoscopy, to take a small sample of tissue for testing
  • Blood tests and other X-rays and scans of the chest and abdomen to check if the disease has spread beyond the esophagus

How is it treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Surgery, which removes cancer cells and the diseased part of your esophagus
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Often, more than 1 type of treatment is used. After treatment, you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with esophageal cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you use tobacco, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider if you need help to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider.
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms, or you develop new symptoms.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-02-20
Last reviewed: 2014-06-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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