A Closer Look at Esophageal Cancer

A Closer Look at Esophageal Cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 17,650 Americans (13,750 men and 3,900 women) will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer this year.

Are you at risk, and if so, can you lower that risk? Is esophageal cancer linked with frequent heartburn? What are the treatment options? Dr. David Zink, Spectrum Health Medical Group-Gastroenterology, offers answers to these questions and more:

What causes esophageal cancer?

The exact cause of this type of cancer is unknown, but it’s believed esophageal cancer develops from damage to the cells of the esophagus (tube leading from the throat to the stomach). Certain lifestyle factors, such as tobacco and alcohol use, can damage these cells.

Are you at risk for esophageal cancer?

Some risk factors for esophageal cancer include

  • Older age
  • Being male
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Suffering from persistent, untreated gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD or acid reflux)
  • Having Barrett’s esophagus (when the cells in the esophagus change due to long-term acid reflux)
  • Obesity

Does GERD or acid reflux cause esophageal cancer?

More than 40 percent of Americans suffer from heartburn at least once a month. While occasional heartburn isn’t something to worry about, frequent symptoms could signal a more serious problem known as GERD. Heartburn is a common symptom of GERD, but this condition can also cause difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food or sour liquid, a feeling like there’s a lump in your throat, coughing, wheezing or frequent throat clearing, hoarse voice, and nausea.

About 10-15 percent of people with GERD develop Barrett’s esophagus, where the tissue of the lining of esophagus changes due to repeated exposure to stomach acid. Barrett’s esophagus puts you at a slightly higher risk of developing esophageal cancer. The risk of esophageal cancer in individuals with Barrett’s esophagus is low (about 0.5 percent per year or 1 out of 200 patients).

How is esophageal cancer detected?

Procedures used to diagnose esophageal cancer include endoscopy (using a flexible tube equipped with a video lens to view your esophagus) and collecting a sample of tissue for testing (biopsy).

What are the treatment options?

When diagnosed early, endoscopic resection (using an endoscope to remove cancerous or other abnormal tissue) and radiofrequency ablation (RFA) are two highly effective, minimally invasive treatment techniques. Surgery is another option, usually performed in combination with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Immunotherapy is also beginning to show promise for certain patients.

Is there anything you can do to lower your risk of esophageal cancer?

The best way to lower your risk for any type of cancer, including esophageal cancer, is to embrace a healthy and active lifestyle. That means:

  • Eating a diet low in sugar and saturated fat, and high in whole foods like fruits and vegetables
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Exercising regularly

Holland Hospital offers local access to comprehensive gastrointestinal care, including the latest diagnostic and treatment techniques available at our state-of-the-art Reflux Center and Endoscopy Center.

Healthy Life Category