Like most types of cancer, esophageal cancer does not cause any symptoms or signs during its early stage. Symptoms occur when the cancer worsens and becomes more advanced.
The esophagus is the organ responsible for carrying swallowed food to the stomach for digestion. The cells that line the inside of the esophagus can become cancerous and this condition is known as esophageal cancer. In the United States, men are found to be more susceptible to this disease than women. Most patients diagnosed with esophageal cancer are men over 50.
According to the data given by the National Cancer Institute, about 17,460 new cases of this condition have been reported this year (2012). Although, any part of the esophagus may be affected, it is the lower portion where the cancer is usually detected. Compared to other parts of the world, incidences of esophageal cancer occur less commonly in the United States. Adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the two main types of this disease.
What Indicates Esophageal Cancer?
Given the small size of the tumor during its early stage, esophageal cancer does not cause any signs or symptoms. With time as the cancer spreads, the tumor grows larger. At one point, the tumor becomes so large that it may partially block the esophagus making it difficult for the person to swallow food. As the person tries to swallow, he/she may get a feeling as if the food is stuck in the esophagus. In some cases, the tumor can become large enough to restrict the passage of even liquids through the food pipe. Swallowing food may become painful too.
As swallowing becomes difficult and painful with time, the affected person may eat less than normal. This, coupled with the harmful effects of the cancer in the body, may cause weight loss. The growing tumor may also cause the person to choke frequently while eating. Indigestion may be persistent, and so may be coughing. It is common for people with esophageal cancer to develop a hoarse voice, vomit and cough up blood in some cases. Chest pain and fatigue are the other symptoms that may accompany the ones mentioned above.
Treatment of esophageal cancer depends on its stage, and the overall health of the patient. If the cancer is localized and has not spread beyond the esophagus, then the treatment usually comprises surgical procedures. These procedures are taken up for removing petite tumors, removing a part of the esophagus itself (known as esophagectomy) or removing a part of the esophagus along with getting rid of some of the upper portions of the stomach (known as esophagogastrectomy). Before conducting any surgery, doctors may treat the patient with chemotherapy too. This is done to reduce the chances of any recurrence of the cancer, and to make surgery easier to perform.
In cases wherein, the cancer has spread to other organs of the body, surgery may be of little or no help. Such cases are less likely to be curable, and patients are treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation to slow down the progress of the cancer and relieve the symptoms.
As esophageal cancer makes it difficult to swallow food or drink liquids, patients can follow a few self-care measures to reduce their discomfort. Patients can go for foods which are soothing and easy to swallow such as soups, yogurt, milkshakes, etc. It is advisable to have smaller meals rather than going for large meals a day.
Patients with severe difficulty in swallowing food are highly susceptible to malnutrition and dehydration. To reduce such risks, vitamin and mineral supplements must be taken after consulting a doctor. Some patients may require the aid of a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube. This tube is surgically planted into the stomach which helps in providing the body with the nutrients it needs.
Dr. Rao Papineni of Carestream Health Inc, USA, along with his team have invented a system that is being considered a significant breakthrough in the treatment of cancer. According to him, this system uses nanotechnology to carry anti-cancer drugs to the cancerous site without affecting the healthy cells of the body. In this way, cancer cells can be eliminated with precision without causing any collateral damage to other tissues.
One cannot do much when it comes to preventing a disease such as cancer. However, one can reduce the risk by following a few measures.
- Do not start smoking or using any tobacco products. And if you already are into this habit, then seek help from your GP about ways of quitting it.
- Alcohol is good for health until it is taken in moderation. Do not exceed the recommended daily limit of alcohol consumption. For men, it is 3-4 units and for women, 2-3 units.
- Prefer adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet than meat or dairy products. Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of antioxidants which play an important role in cutting down the risk of cancer. Adding whole grains to the diet is also recommended.
- As over-weight people are more susceptible to esophageal cancer, they must diligently work in weight-loss programs and maintain a healthy weight.
Coping with a condition such as cancer can be difficult. But keeping oneself abreast about latest research or findings in the treatment of cancer can be a great moral booster. Seeking support from friends and family, and exchanging vital insights with other people who are going through the same situation, also help in coping with the condition.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.