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Esophageal cancer

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

The esophagus is another name for the food pipe, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Esophageal cancer can arise anywhere along the food pipe. In the US, it is rather uncommon.

There are two types of esophageal cancer: adenocarcinoma is the most common, arising from within the mucous glands towards the bottom of the tube, and squamous cell carcinoma, which arises from the lining of the esophagus in the top and middle part of the tube.

The sooner the cancer is found, the better the chance of curing the disease. It’s tough to treat, and survival depends on whether the cancer has spread to other body parts.

What symptoms does esophageal cancer cause?

In the early stages, there are usually no symptoms of esophageal cancer. The development of symptoms usually relates to a tumor partially blocking the pipe, making swallowing more difficult (dysphagia). This may feel like food gets stuck in the throat and as it goes down – solid food is the most difficult to start; with increasing obstruction, liquids may also be difficult to swallow easily.

Vomiting after eating or vomiting blood, pain when swallowing, or persistent cough may be additional symptoms. Difficulties with eating can affect appetite and cause weight loss.

Other symptoms include a hoarse voice or worsening acid reflux.

What’s the test for esophageal cancer?

Your doctor can refer you for a test to look inside your esophagus 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 to your food pipe. This gives the doctor a clear view of any obstruction or disrupted tissue.

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

How can I prevent esophageal cancer?

Depending on your 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 esophagus.

It’s worth bearing in mind that many esophageal cancers are preventable, so it’s very important to control any factors you can, like lifestyle factors.

What is the treatment?

Treatment depends on where the tumor 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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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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