Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month

April is designated as "Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month," with a variety of global activities highlighting and raising awareness of esophageal cancer in order to support and develop research. Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month was created to raise awareness about the risks and treatments available for this deadly cancer. Mindy Mintz Mordecai, the organization's founder, lost her husband, John, to esophageal cancer in 2008.

Esophageal cancer is becoming more common in the United States. The American Cancer Society ranks esophageal cancer as the seventh leading cause of cancer death in men. While esophageal cancer deaths are decreasing, the number of people diagnosed is increasing. Survival rates are also rising, though they remain relatively low. Men are more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer.

What is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the esophagus, which is a long, hollow tube that connects your throat to your stomach. Your esophagus aids in the movement of food from the back of your throat to your stomach for digestion. Esophageal cancer typically begins in the cells that line the esophagus. Esophageal cancer can develop at any point along the esophagus. Esophageal cancer affects men more than women.

According to federal statistics, an estimated 20,640 people in the United States were diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2022, with an estimated 16,410 dying from the disease, making it one of the deadliest types of cancer. The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with esophageal cancer is approximately 21%.

What causes Esophageal Cancer?

Tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco, is a significant risk factor for esophageal cancer. The more and longer a person uses tobacco, the greater the risk of cancer. A smoker who smokes a pack of cigarettes or more per day has at least twice the risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma as a nonsmoker, and the risk does not go away when tobacco use is discontinued. The link to squamous cell esophageal cancer is even stronger, but quitting smoking reduces the risk.

Alcohol consumption also raises the risk of esophageal cancer. The more alcohol a person consumes, the more likely they are to develop esophageal cancer. Alcohol is more likely to cause squamous cell carcinoma than adenocarcinoma. Smoking and drinking alcohol together significantly increases the risk of squamous cell esophageal cancer compared to either alone.

Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

The majority of people with esophageal cancer are diagnosed as a result of symptoms. It is uncommon for people who have no symptoms to be diagnosed with this cancer. When it does occur, the cancer is usually discovered by chance as a result of tests for other medical problems. The most common symptoms of esophageal cancer are:

  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Chest pain, pressure or burning
  • Chronic cough
  • Weight loss
  • Worsening indigestion or heartburn
  • Bone pain (if cancer has spread to the bone)
  • Bleeding into the esophagus. This blood then passes through the digestive tract, causing the stool to turn black. This blood loss can eventually lead to anemia (low red blood cell levels), which can make a person tired.

Tests to diagnose Esophageal Cancer

  • Physical exam and health history: An examination of the body to check general signs of health, including the appearance of lumps or anything else that appears unusual.
  • Chest x-ray: An image of the organs and bones within the chest.
  • Esophagoscopy: An esophagoscope is inserted into the esophagus through the mouth or nose and down the throat. An esophagoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a viewing light and lens. It may also include a tool for extracting tissue samples, which are then examined under a microscope for signs of cancer.

Esophageal Cancer: Types of Treatment

The type and stage of cancer, potential side effects, and the patient's preferences and overall health all influence treatment options and recommendations. Take the time to learn about all of your treatment options, and don't be afraid to ask clarifying questions. Your treatment plan will be determined by a number of factors, including the type and stage of your esophageal cancer. Your treatment plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, which is referred to as palliative and supportive care. The treatment options are as follows:

  • Surgery
  • Endoscopic therapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Physical, emotional, and social effects of cancer
  • Locally advanced esophageal cancer
  • Metastatic esophageal cancer
  • Remission and the chance of recurrence
  • If treatment does not work