Know the warning signs of esophageal cancer

May 29, 2019 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

One of the fastest-growing cancers in the United States, esophageal cancer is expected to affect more than 17,000 Americans this year.

There is no known cause and symptoms often may not appear until the disease is more advanced, so it’s important to be aware of warning signs and discuss any symptoms with your doctor.

Esophageal cancer occurs when cancer cells attach to the lining of the esophagus. More often affecting men than women, esophageal cancer starts in the inner lining of the esophagus and works its way out.

According to the American Cancer Society, esophageal cancer is the 11th leading cause of cancer-related deaths and is more likely to strike older white men. Other risk factors include tobacco or alcohol use, obesity, prior injury to the esophagus and a history of other diseases related to the esophagus, such as reflux or Barrett’s esophagus (a precancerous disease).

Though having some of the below symptoms does not always indicate esophageal cancer (and can often be attributed to other health concerns), it is important to discuss any symptoms or changes to your health with your doctor, especially if you are having difficulty swallowing.

Some of the main symptoms of esophageal cancer include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Chest pain, pressure or burning
  • Worsening heartburn or indigestion
  • Coughing or hoarseness

Lifestyle changes, including avoiding alcohol and tobacco use, following a healthy diet and seeking treatment for diseases related to the esophagus (such as reflux) can help reduce your chances for developing esophageal cancer. If you’ve been diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, your doctor may recommend regular screenings to monitor the condition.

If you notice any of the above warning signs, let your doctor know. You may undergo tests to determine if you have cancer, what type it is and how far it has spread. Imaging tests, such as MRI, CT or barium swallow tests, can help in the diagnosis. Your doctor may also order a biopsy to test affected tissue.

Treatment options for esophageal cancer can vary but may include chemotherapy, surgery or other procedures, such as radiofrequency ablation, to kill the cancer cells in the lining of the esophagus. If caught in an early stage, you may undergo photodynamic therapy, where a medication is injected into a vein, to treat the cancer.

When talking to your doctor about your diagnosis and treatment, it may help to have a list of questions before your appointment. Some questions to ask may include:

  • What is the stage of the cancer and what does it mean?
  • What are my options for treatment?
  • How long treatment will last?
  • What are the possible side effects?
  • Does my diet need to change during treatment?

Staying on top of your health and in close communication with your doctor can help lead to early detection of esophageal cancer and increase your chances for a better outcome.

Edward-Elmhurst Health offers three state-of-the art cancer centers in Naperville, Elmhurst and Plainfield, each with expert care teams that focus on your individual physical and emotional needs. Learn more.

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