Esophageal cancer is cancer that develops in the esophagus, the muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. The esophagus, located just behind the trachea, is about 10 to 13 inches in length and allows food to enter the stomach for digestion. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers and cancers generally start from the inner layer and grow out.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 16,470 Americans will be newly diagnosed with esophageal cancer during 2009, and 14,530 deaths are expected.
No one knows exactly what causes esophageal cancer. At the top of the esophagus is a muscle, called the sphincter, that releases to let food or liquid go through. The lower part of the esophagus is connected to the stomach. Another muscle is located at this connection that opens to allow the food to enter the stomach. This muscle also works to keep food and juices from the stomach from backing into the esophagus. When these juices do back up, reflux, commonly known as heartburn, occurs.
Long-term reflux can change the cells in the lower end of the esophagus. This condition is known as Barrett's esophagus. If these cells are not treated, they are at much higher risk of developing into cancer cells.
What are the different types of esophageal cancer?
There are two main types of esophageal cancer. The most common type of esophageal cancer, known as adenocarcinoma, develops in the glandular tissue in the lower part of the esophagus, near the opening of the stomach. It occurs in just over 50 percent of cases.
Squamous cell carcinoma grows in the cells that form the top layer of the lining of the esophagus, known as squamous cells. This type of cancer can grow anywhere along the esophagus.
Treatment for both types of esophageal cancer is similar.
What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?
Often, there are no symptoms in the early stages of esophageal cancer. Symptoms do not appear until the disease is more advanced. The following are the most common symptoms of esophageal cancer. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
difficult or painful swallowing A condition known as dysphagia is the most common symptom of esophageal cancer. This gives a sensation of having food lodged in the chest, and persons with dysphagia often switch to softer foods to help with swallowing.
pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades
severe weight loss Many persons with esophageal cancer lose weight unintentionally because they are not getting enough food.
hoarseness or chronic cough that does not go away within two weeks
coughing up blood
The symptoms of esophageal cancer may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.
There is no routine screening examination for esophageal cancer; however, persons with Barrett's esophagus should be examined often because they are at greater risk for developing the disease.
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