April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, bringing much needed attention to this often deadly disease. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 18,000 new esophageal cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States during 2020. More than 14,000 of these will be diagnosed in men and approximately 4,000 in women. The organization also estimates that 16,170 deaths from esophageal cancer will occur in the United States this year.

Early detection is vital to curing esophageal cancer. In this post, Sathya Jaganmohan, MD, explains the risks and symptoms of esophageal cancer, in addition to treatment, prevention and when to see a doctor.

What is Esophageal Cancer?
The esophagus is a hollow organ that allows food to pass from the mouth to the stomach. Cancer of the esophagus accounts for 1% of the cancers found in the U.S. This cancer is three to four times more common in men than in women. Esophageal cancer is a dangerous disease. The five-year survival rate for esophageal cancer is about 20%. Squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma are the two common subtypes of esophageal cancer.

Causes of Esophageal Cancer
Smoking and acid reflux are the major causal factors in esophageal cancer. Uncontrolled acid reflux causes changes in the inner lining of the esophagus that makes it precancerous (Barrett’s esophagus). Over time, this can progress into cancer. Many patients do not have typical symptoms of reflux, but they have symptoms such as cough, hoarseness or a constant need to clear the throat, which may be a sign of silent reflux that should be evaluated. Other risk factors for esophageal cancer include excessive alcohol consumption, a diet that is poor in fruits and vegetables, drinking hot liquids, and obesity.

Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer
While early diagnosis is the key to curing this disease, many early esophageal cancers are unfortunately asymptomatic. Initial symptoms may include reflux, heartburn, cough or hoarseness, and difficulty swallowing. As the disease advances, symptoms such as unintended weight loss and choking on food occur.

Click the image above for a video of Dr. Jaganmohan discussing risk factors for Esophageal Cancer.

How Can This Cancer Be Prevented?
Lifestyle modifications such as not smoking, increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol consumption and maintaining an ideal body weight may reduce the risk of esophageal cancer. If you have symptoms of acid reflux or have difficulty swallowing, consult with your doctor for evaluation. Remember that silent or atypical heartburn may cause cough, hoarseness or other symptoms without causing real heartburn or chest discomfort.

What is the Latest in the Treatment and Prevention of Esophageal Cancer?
Early detection at the precancerous stage (Barrett’s esophagus) is possible with greater accuracy with new techniques in obtaining samples and improvements in imaging. There have also been advances in treatment. Radiofrequency ablation is a new technique that enables us to use heat energy from radiofrequency waves to burn and cauterize precancerous tissue in the esophagus. Endoscopic mucosal resection is a technique where precancerous and early stages of cancer are removed during outpatient endoscopy without surgery. Cryotherapy is another new technique that enables use of cold energy to freeze and kill the precancerous cells in the esophagus, and it prevents development of esophageal cancer. All these diagnostic and treatment options are offered at GIS.

Remember that simple acid reflux can cause esophageal cancer, and may be preventable with early evaluation.

Talk to Our Doctors About Your Concerns If:

  • You have more than occasional heartburn symptoms.
  • You have experienced heartburn in the past, but the symptoms have gone away.
  • You have any pain or difficulty swallowing.
  • You have a family history of Barrett’s Esophagus or Esophageal Cancer.
  • You have an ongoing, unexplained cough.
  • You have been speaking with a hoarse voice over several weeks.
  • You have a long-lasting, unexplained sore throat.
  • You cough or choke when you lie down.

At GastroIntestinal Specialists, A.M.C., we offer cancer screenings in addition to treating multiple conditions and diseases of the GI tract.
To schedule an appointment, call (318) 631-9121 or click here.