The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the mouth with the stomach. It carries food and liquids to the stomach. There are two main types of cancer that occur in the esophagus. Squamous cell carcinoma is more common in the upper part of the esophagus and adenocarcinoma is more common the lower part of the esophagus. Esophageal cancer affects men more often than women, affects African Americans more often than Caucasians and is more common in people over age 55.
The exact cause of esophageal cancer is unknown, but risk factors include alcohol use, smoking and obesity. The risk of esophageal cancer also increases with acid reflux. Over time, acid reflux can cause changes in the lining of the esophagus. This condition is known as Barrett's esophagus. Those with Barrett's esophagus have a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Symptoms of esophageal cancer may vary depending on the size of the tumor. Very small esophageal tumors generally do not cause symptoms. Larger tumors may result in trouble swallowing foods such as meats, breads, or raw vegetables. Cancer of the esophagus may also cause symptoms of heartburn, vomiting, coughing, anemia, weight loss and hoarseness of the voice.
Your doctor will start by taking a complete history and performing a physical examination. Your doctor may order a variety of tests to diagnose esophageal cancer including an esophagram (also called barium swallow), endoscopy, CT scan or endoscopic ultrasound.
Depending on the stage of esophageal cancer, treatment may include surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. Other treatment options to improve symptoms include stent placement, laser treatment and stretching or dilation of the esophagus.
Contact your health care provider if you have difficulty swallowing foods or liquids.