Esophageal cancer affects the esophagus, the long tube that takes food from the back of the throat to the stomach. Esophageal cancer can take the form of either squamous cell carcinoma, which affects the flat cells that line the esophagus; or adenocarcinoma, which affects the cells that secrete mucous.
Anyone can get esophageal cancer, regardless of whether or not they have risk factors; similarly, some people with many risk factors never get esophageal cancer. However, there are a number of risk factors that can significantly increase the risk of esophageal cancer:
- Gender – Men are three times as likely to develop esophageal disorders as women
- Age – As with most cancers, the risk of esophageal cancer is highest after 65
- Tobacco – Using any form of tobacco, including cigars, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco, increases the risk of esophageal cancer. The effect is more pronounced when use is higher and goes on for longer
- Alcohol – High intake of alcohol increases your risk. The risk is particularly magnified for people who smoke and drink regularly
- Diet – Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables lowers your risk, while eating a diet high in processed meats may increase your risk. Overeating is also associated with an increased risk.
- Obesity – Obese people are more likely to develop esophageal cancer
- Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) – Apart from immediate effects such as discomfort, and relatively short-term effects such as oral problems, GERD is associated with a higher risk of esophageal cancer. The risk is higher the longer you have the condition and the more severe the symptoms are
- Barrett’s Esophagus – People with chronic GERD can develop Barrett’s Esophagus, in which the squamous cells of the lower esophagus are replaced by gland cells more associated with the small intestine. This condition is associated with a significant increase in the risk of other esophageal disorders, like cancer
- Achalasia – If the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach doesn’t relax properly, it can’t stretch out all the time. Food then sits in the lower esophagus, causing irritation. Achalasia is a major risk factor for esophageal cancer
If you have heartburn symptoms for more than 5 years or if you are 50 years old or older, our endoscopy may identify precancerous conditions like Barrett’s esophagus and assist in early detection or prevention of esophageal cancer.
Like all cancers, esophageal cancer is easiest to treat when it is detected early. For that reason, you should see a doctor as soon as possible if you start to develop symptoms of esophageal cancer. Some of the most common symptoms include pain or difficulty swallowing; weight loss; chest pain; coughing; hoarseness; and heartburn.