The esophagus is a hollow tube, that is about 10 inches long and is responsible for carrying food and liquids from the throat to the stomach. Esophageal cancer occurs in the tissues that line the esophagus.
The DNA controls the growth and division of healthy cells. When it is damaged, one of the most prominent outcomes is that, the cells begin to grow out of control, and eventually form a mass of malignant cells known as a tumor, which leads to cancer. Some of the factors that can damage the DNA of the esophagus have been identified as:
- Alcohol Abuse: It has been observed that chronic alcohol abuse is one of the key factors that leads to cancer of the esophagus. Heavy drinking over a long period of time inflames the lining of the stomach, and eventually brings about malignant changes in the stomach lining.
- Tobacco: Tobacco in any form - cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewing it directly increases the possibility of this cancer.
- Chronic Acid Reflux: In some cases, the lower esophageal sphincter becomes abnormally weak, and allows the caustic stomach acids into the esophagus tube. Chronic reflux of the acid can lead to a medical condition known as Barrett's esophagus, wherein cells similar to the stomach cells develop in the lower esophagus. Although these cells are resistant to the acid of the stomach, and reduce the instances of heartburn, they have a high potential towards malignancy.
- Diet: It has been observed that a diet that consists of very little fruits and vegetables, and especially, lacking vitamins A, B1, and C can lead to this condition.
- Obesity: This disorder is also commonly seen in people who are obese and have a body mass index (BMI) greater than 25.
Usually, the patient does not experience any symptoms during the early stages. When the cancer advances, some of the symptoms that the individual can experience are:
- Difficulty in swallowing: The medical term for this condition is dysphagia. This is the most common symptom of esophageal cancer, and the patient does not experience the discomfort till the cancer has narrowed down the esophagus to half its normal size. The diet will have to be changed drastically, and eventually, it will become difficult to swallow liquids too.
- Weight loss: As eating becomes more difficult, the individual will not be able to maintain a regular diet, which will cause weight loss. Further, cancer by itself causes muscle wasting and weight loss, as it changes the way the body metabolizes nutrients.
- Pain: This condition is often accompanied by pain in the throat, mid-chest, or in between the shoulder blades. There can also be discomfort or burning sensation behind the breastbone when the individual swallows.
- Others: The individual may also suffer from hoarseness, hiccups, and vomiting of blood, but these symptoms only appear when the cancer is in the advanced stage.
Treatment of the esophageal cancer depends on the type, location, and the stage of cancer along with the age, overall health, and personal preferences of the patient. It has been observed that various combinations of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiations is usually more effective than any single form of treatment. Please evaluate all the options available, and take as much as time as possible before arriving on a decision.
- Surgery: It is a common and accepted form of treatment. Depending on the nature of the cancer, the surgery can be performed to remove the part of the esophagus that is affected by the tumor. This procedure is known as Esophagectomy. Alternatively, in advanced stages of cancer, the affected area of the esophagus, along with a part of the upper stomach, is removed. This procedure is known as Esophagogastrectomy.
- Chemotherapy: Drugs to kill the cancerous cells are used in this method of treatment. The drugs are either taken orally, or injected into the vein.
- Radiation Therapy: This is a primary form of treatment, that is usually used to shrink the tumor before surgery.
- Photodynamic Therapy: This form of therapy is used to relieve pain and obstruction. During the procedure, an injection containing a light sensitive drug that remains in the cancer cells longer than the healthy cells, is injected into the patient. A laser light is then directed at the esophagus via an endoscope, which stimulates the production of an active form of oxygen that helps in the destruction of the cancer cells, while ignoring the healthy ones.