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Cancer Health Center

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Esophageal Cancer On the Rise

Esophageal Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of esophageal cancer include:

  • Difficulty or pain with swallowing
  • Pain behind the breastbone
  • Coughing (sometimes blood is seen in sputum produced by cough)
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss, which can be severe
  • Frequent heartburn or indigestion

These symptoms should trigger an immediate call to your doctor, particularly in someone with frequent reflux symptoms

Treatment for Esophageal Cancer

Doctors use a variety of approaches to cure or control esophageal cancer:

  • Surgery (esophagectomy, or removal of the esophagus)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Photodynamic therapy (using a light-activated chemical to attack the cancer)

Most patients will undergo esophagectomy. This major surgery requires opening the chest or abdomen. Further treatment depends on what physicians find during the surgery.

Unfortunately, esophageal cancer usually spreads microscopically (called metastasis) before patients feel any symptoms. Even after successful surgery, these undetectable cancer deposits eventually grow larger and cause more problems.

For this reason, many cancer centers use chemotherapy and radiation therapy as well as surgery. These methods attempt to kill any cancer that has already spread from the esophagus to the rest of the body.

To try to improve cure rates, the National Cancer Institute is recruiting patients for clinical trials in esophageal cancer. You can find details at or by calling (800) 4-CANCER.

Prevention of Esophageal Cancer: Changing Habits for Hope

Prevention is the key for any form of cancer. Because esophageal cancer often spreads before it's detected, prevention is even more important.

There are many things you can do to lower your risk for esophageal cancer:

  • Quit tobacco! Stopping smoking will lower the risk for many cancers and other diseases, not just esophageal cancer
  • Limit alcohol to one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women
  • Eat a diet high in green and yellow vegetables, and a variety of fruits
  • Taking aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for other reasons may reduce the risk for esophageal cancer. Don't start a new medicine without talking to your doctor.

What about treating reflux symptoms? Since reflux and Barrett's esophagus cause esophageal cancer, it seems likely that treating reflux symptoms would prevent esophageal cancer. Surprisingly, there is so far no proof of this.

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