Esophageal Cancer: Five Things You Need to Know

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:

2.      What is Barrett’s esophagus and how does it relate to esophageal cancer?

Peter Enzinger, MD, sees patients in the Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer at Dana-Farber.

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.

Patients may also consider clinical trials for treatment. Dana-Farber currently offers several clinical trials for esophageal cancer and a national list is maintained at clinicaltrials.gov.

For more information on esophageal cancer, visit the Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

32 thoughts on “Esophageal Cancer: Five Things You Need to Know”

  1. My mother also had esophogeal cancer that was diagnosed in 1993. We were told that it didn’t look good and only radiation could be tried. That went well and she eventually had the surgery and she learned oesophogeal speech and did really well with it. We were lucky and had 11yrs after the surgery. We didn’t think we’d get that- but it’s never enough. She passed in 2004 but she’s with me every day. We got treated over at Mass Eye&Ear and those doctors are the best!

  2. At 56, I started having difficulty swallowing. It was diagnosed 3 months later. Went thru chemo, radiation and them some pretty radical surgery. Scan spotted a distant malignant cell reducing the odds to less than 1%. Went from 225 lbs to 155 lbs in 3 months. Went thru a second round of chemo (Xyloda) and radiation. A year later, my radiologist called me the ”miracle man.” Now 10 years later, my Oncologist ended my semi-annual MRI’s RTC. cancer free and no indication. I am blessed to be able to see my three children settle into prominent careers. Many thanks and grateful prayers to my medical team for all their efforts, years of study and genuine concern.

  3. My dad my diagnosed on December 21 with stage 4 esophageal cancer and passed away January 25. I had never even heard of this type of cancer until my dad was diagnosed. He was only 56 years old when we lost him. He was having trouble keeping anything down and the doctor thought it was the flu. If only it was that. I think people need to get anything checked out when they do not feel right. More awareness needs to be brought about this awful cancer. I miss my daddy every day.

  4. I lost my dad 9 months after he was diagnosed, in 2013. He used to be a heavy smoker in his younger days but had quit over 35 years ago. He looked great and exercised 2 times a day. He would take a long walk in the morning and rode his bike in the afternoon. He would take Tums quite often but we never thought anything of it. We had no idea his heartburn could be something serious. One day he was eating an apple and he felt it get caught in his throat. It wouldn’t go down. It started happening more often. Food was getting caught and he felt it in his esophagus. He had an endoscopy and was diagnosed with Stage 3 Esophageal Cancer. His treatment was very aggressive. Radiation/Chemo. Also a feeding tube was put in. He became very ill from the chemo and had to stop. After treatment was over they had to put a stent in his esophagus to keep it open because they removed the feeding tube. The stent perforated the mass or the wall of the esophagus and he hemorrhaged to death 6 days later. He started vomiting large amounts of blood at home, we rushed him to the hospital and he died of blood loss in front of us. He still had hopes they would save him but when they called the priest, he knew. It is a horrible disease. I wish we had known, about his acid reflux…maybe they could have done something.

    • Dear Norm —
      We are so sorry to hear about the loss of your father. Thank you for sharing your story and bringing awareness to our readers. Wishing you and your family all the best.

  5. I lost my husband on Christmas morning 2012 just 4 months from his diagnosis. He had just turned 60 that October 31st. Like many of the other bloggers we didn’t know until it was too late. He started with food getting caught in his throat then food getting stuck. He had an endoscopy done August 2012 which led to the diagnosis of esophageal cancer and they “thought” it was a stage 2 or 3 when in fact we were told stage 4 in November. His father died from this same cancer. This was just the beginning of a downward spiral. He had a feeding tube and a port put in a few weeks later. I don’t know what really happened but he went into those procedures the husband and father we all knew, but he came out acting like someone we didn’t know. His personality had dramatically changed and we never knew why. Someone asked us if he’d had a small stroke or a heart attack when these procedures were done. We were not told this if it did happen. In hindsight, we remember being told this was a same day surgery but several hours later when we were able to finally see him, he was in ICU. From there he went to another level of ICU but still ICU. He was now facing radiation and chemo and then surgery but unfortunately he had Hepatitus C and after almost six weeks of radiation and only two chemo treatments, his liver shut down and there was no turning back. There was no need for any further treatment of any kind and we now found ourselves in hospice care. I spent every night with him at the hospital the last 3 weeks of his life. This was the most traumatic and heartbreaking thing that we’d ever been through. He was this handsome 6 foot 2 man but when he left us he was just a shell of himself and hardly recognizable. Christmas will never be the same for our family. In hindsight, we had a lot of “woulda coulda” moments and one being the possibility of us seeking treatment from another facility like Dana Farber. Unfortunately, we never did because we thought he was at the BEST facility that he could be at. In the beginning, we thought he’d get through it. He beat Hodgkins Lymphoma stage 4 the first year we were married. We were married in April and he was diagnosed that same August with Hodgkins but he beat the odds on this one. We kept thinking that if he made it through all that, he certainly would do it again. I guess I was the last sell out this next time around. We were not ready or prepared for his death to happen. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss him and I think and talk to him all of the time. I will NEVER forget everything that he went through and he just wanted to live.

    • Dear Marcia —

      Our deepest condolences to you and your family. We are so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. Thank you for sharing your story and bringing awareness to our readers. Best wishes to you.

Comments are closed.