Q&A: Understanding Esophageal Cancer

May. 10, 2016

Each year, about 17,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It’s not as common as some cancers, but nationally, cases of the adenocarcinoma type of esophageal cancer are on the rise.

Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Dr. Mohamedtaki Tejani, a medical oncologist Dr. Mohamedtaki Tejaniwho specializes in treating gastrointestinal cancers, shares some basic information about esophageal cancer and how you may be able to reduce your risk for the disease.

What is esophageal cancer and are there different types of it?

Your esophagus is essentially a long, muscular tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. When you swallow food, it travels down your esophagus to reach the stomach.

The two main types of esophageal cancer are adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, although there are other types that are rarer. The difference between the two types is where the cancer begins. Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the flat cells that line the upper half of the esophagus. Adenocarcinoma starts in the cells that make fluids and mucus in the lower half of the esophagus.

In general, the exact cause of esophageal cancer is not known. It could be a result of frequent irritation causing changes to the DNA of cells in the esophagus.

Who’s more at risk for esophageal cancer?

Men are about three times more likely to get esophageal cancer than women. Also, a person’s risk of esophageal cancer increases with age. Those age 55 or older are more likely to get it than those who are younger.

While people of any ethnicity can get esophageal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma is more common among people living in Asia and Africa compared to the United States. The squamous cell type is also more common in African-Americans. On the other hand, adenocarcinoma is more common among whites.

Those with gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, or Barrett’s esophagus are at greater risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma, the type that is on the rise in the U.S. Those who are obese and eat a diet high in processed foods and low in fruits and vegetables are also at greater risk of adenocarcinoma.

With squamous cell carcinoma, tobacco and alcohol use can put a person at greater risk.

How can I reduce my risk of this type of cancer?

We cannot control some risk factors of esophageal cancer, such as our age or gender. However, making healthy lifestyle changes could reduce your risk of this disease.

Quitting smoking and eliminating or reducing your alcohol intake reduces your risk of squamous cell carcinoma.

Since obesity is a risk factor for the disease, maintaining a healthy weight is a good idea.

Avoid overeating and strive to fill your diet with more fruits and vegetable and less processed food.

Be mindful of GERD and if you experience symptoms of GERD, address them with your primary care physician early. Symptoms of GERD include indigestion, heartburn, or pain in the chest, although sometimes, it does not have any symptoms.

If you’re experiencing signs like frequent heart burn or indigestion, difficulty swallowing, losing weight unexpectedly, coughing frequently or voice hoarseness, talk to your doctor. Bringing up these concerns sooner rather than later is ideal. When caught in earlier stages, esophageal cancer is more likely to respond to treatment.