Medically reviewed by Peter C. Enzinger, MD
Although it is not a common disease, esophageal cancer affects about 18,000 new patients each year in the United States. Typically, the disease is found more often in men than in women, with men having about a ten-fold higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.
“Esophageal and gastric cancers are some of the most stubborn and aggressive cancers that we treat in the United States today,” explains Peter Enzinger, MD, director of the Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer at Dana-Farber. “Therapies must be quite aggressive to treat these cancers, but we must know how to effectively treat any side effects as well.”
Here are five key facts you should know about esophageal cancer:
1. What are the risk factors associated with esophageal cancer?
While smoking and drinking can increase the likelihood of developing esophageal cancer, the disease can affect anyone.
Some common risk factors are:
- People with Barrett’s esophagus
- People with Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Smoking (including pipes and cigars)
2. What is Barrett’s esophagus and how does it relate to esophageal cancer?
Barrett’s esophagus is a pre-cancerous or, in some cases, early form of esophageal cancer. It is often due to chronic inflammation from acid reflux and appears as abnormal cells lining the esophagus. When detected early, there is a better chance of preventing the further development of cancer.
If diagnosed, it is important to treat Barrett’s esophagus to prevent the development of esophageal cancer. People diagnosed with an early form of Barrett’s esophagus will take medication and make lifestyle changes to reverse symptoms. If it is a high-grade form of Barrett’s esophagus, doctors may use a procedure called radiofrequency ablation, which removes abnormal tissue and allows normal tissue to grow back.
3. What are the signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer?
The early stages of esophageal cancer typically have no symptoms. As the disease advances, symptoms start to become more noticeable. The most common symptoms include painful/difficult swallowing, weight loss, and regurgitation of food.
4. How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?
A physician will conduct several tests to determine whether someone has esophageal cancer. The tests typically include a combination of chest X-rays, barium swallow, esophagoscopy, endoscopy, blood chemistry studies, complete blood count (CBC), or endoscopic ultrasound (EUS).
5. What are the treatment options for esophageal cancer?
Esophageal cancer is difficult to treat because it is usually diagnosed in later stages of the disease. For many patients, doctors will perform surgery to remove the cancer. If the disease is diagnosed in a later stage, doctors may also recommend chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy prior to surgery.
For more information on esophageal cancer, visit the Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.