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Oesophageal cancer

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 3 minutes read
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The oesophagus is another name for the food pipe or ‘gullet’, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Oesophageal cancer can arise anywhere along the food pipe. There are around 8,000 cases diagnosed every year in the UK, with over 6 in 10 being found in men. It is the 7th most common cancer in the UK and causes around 5% of all cancer deaths.

There are two types of oesophageal cancer. The most common type (60% of cases) is adenocarcinoma that arises from within the mucous glands towards the bottom of the tube. The second type (40% of cases) is squamous cell carcinoma, which arises from the lining of the oesophagus in the top and middle part of the tube.

The sooner oesophageal cancer is found, the better the chance of cure of the disease as it is often tough to treat, and less than half survive a year or more. At present, around 25% of people diagnosed with this type of cancer are still alive 5 years after their diagnosis.

What symptoms does oesophageal cancer cause?

In the early stages, there are usually no symptoms of oesophageal cancer but symptoms usually relate to a tumour part-blocking the pipe, making it more difficult to swallow (dysphagia) and this is typically the first symptom that is felt. This may feel like food gets stuck in the throat or lower down the gullet as it goes down with solid food (like meat or bread) being the most difficult to start with, then with increasing obstruction liquids may also become more difficult to swallow.

Vomiting after eating or vomiting blood, pain when swallowing or a persistent cough can also be some of the symptoms experiences and there may also be unexplained weight loss, a hoarse voice or worsening acid reflux.

What’s the test for oesophageal cancer?

Your doctor can refer you for a test to look inside your oesophagus called an endoscopy. During the procedure, a long thin tube, the size of a pen, with a camera on the end is passed from your mouth down the gullet, giving the doctor operating it a clear view of any obstruction or disrupted tissue.

You will be given some local anaesthetic and sedative to make you feel more at ease, but you will be awake throughout. It may be briefly uncomfortable but it should not painful. A sample of cells called a biopsy may be taken and sent off for further examination.

How can I prevent oesophageal cancer?

Depending on your own personal risk factors, you should aim to lose weight, stop smoking and drink alcohol only in moderation, if these apply to you. Avoid piping hot food and drink, as they can cause long term damage to your oesophagus. It’s worth bearing in mind that 6 of 10 oesophageal cancers are preventable, so it’s really important to take control of any factors that you can do, like lifestyle factors

What is the treatment?

Treatment depends on where exactly the tumour is, how large it is, whether it has spread to other areas of the body and your general health. Options include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy as well as newer treatment options if appropriate such as monoclonal antibodies and photodynamic therapy.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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