A Guide To Esophageal Cancer

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The esophagus is a tube that connects the throat to the stomach, running down the middle of your chest behind your heart, and carrying foods and liquids from your mouth to the digestive system. Most adult’s esophagi are about 25 centimeters long and are lined by mucosa (a moist membrane that protects tissues) and muscle fibers.

The main function of the esophagus is to guide foods and fluids to the stomach avoiding foreign material (food, liquids, stomach acid or foreign objects) to enter into your trachea and lungs. There are two sphincter muscles – upper and lower – in the esophagus that are tightly closed in order to prevent stomach juices from traveling up the esophagus and also to prevent unwanted secretions from traveling to stomach. These muscles open up when you are eating, drinking, breathing, belching, etc.

A weakened lower esophageal sphincter is usually responsible for chronic acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

What is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer is a type of cancer that occurs healthy cells start to grow and divide uncontrollably creating growths (known as tumors) along the surface of the esophagus. Doctors diagnose esophageal cancer using a camera-guided scope (endoscopy) to explore the esophagus and look for any abnormalities such as nodules or areas of irritation. If the doctor found any signs of cancer during an endoscopy they may order a biopsy to collect a sample of the abnormal growth. These tissues are analyzed for any potential cancer cells.

There are two main types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

Squamous cell carcinomas develop from normal squamous cells that run along the surface of the esophagus. On the other hand, adenocarcinomas are formed from gland cells present in the lower third of the esophagus, and it is believed to be caused mainly by the continuous exposure to stomach acid.

What Are the Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer?

Early stage esophageal cancer usually doesn’t have any symptoms, however, as the cancer progresses it starts to cause the following problems and discomforts:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Chest or back pain
  • Chronic heartburn or indigestion
  • A cough and/or hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath and/or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite

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What Causes Esophageal Cancer?

The causes of esophageal cancer are still not fully understood. However, doctors believe that there are a few risk factors that appear to increase a person’s risk for developing this kind of cancer.

  • Tobacco and Alcohol Use
    Tobacco and drinking alcohol seems to damage DNA cells in the lining of the esophagus, which may lead them to mutate and become cancerous.
  • Gender
    Men are three to four times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer.
  • Being Overweight or Obese
    Obesity and having too much body fat seems to increase the likelihood of developing esophageal cancer. However, researchers are still trying to find out why that happens.
  • Barrett’s Esophagus
    Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that develops from chronic GERD in which the normal lining of the esophagus changes as a result of the constant acid exposure. Though Barrett’s Esophagus is not a form of cancer, some individuals with this condition develop esophageal cancer later on.
  • Diet
    A diet low fruits and vegetables and some vitamin deficiencies have been observed to increase an individual’s risk of developing this type of cancer.

Esophageal Cancer Clinical Trials

Unfortunately, because esophageal cancer is rarely diagnosed early it has one the lowest survival rates. For that reason, doctors and researchers are constantly looking for better screening and diagnostic methods as well as more effective treatments. In order to test new approaches, researchers design clinical trials that involve esophageal cancer patients.

The main goal of a clinical trial is to assess if a new drug or intervention is safe, effective, and altogether a better alternative than available options. Clinical trials are very carefully evaluated by internal and external agencies to ensure that the health and safety of volunteers are never compromised.

To participate in a clinical trial, participants are asked to sign an informed consent document. This document outlines all the potential benefits and risks that may arise from the trial, as well as an explanation of the experimental treatment, and what will be expected from the volunteer (i.e., number of visits to the clinic or hospital, any in-patient stays, etc.) Most clinical trials also have inclusion and exclusion criteria that outline who can and cannot participate in the study and why.

If you are interested in participating in an esophageal cancer clinical trial your doctor will be able to tell you if you are a good candidate for one and may help you find a trial in your local area. Clinical trials are conducted by research centers, hospitals, and universities all across the country and many of them are always recruiting new volunteers.

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