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Esophageal Cancer

How Is Esophageal Cancer Treated?

As with many cancers, esophageal cancer treatment has a greater chance of success if the cancer is caught early. Unfortunately, by the time esophageal cancer is diagnosed for many people, it is often already in an advanced stage (has spread throughout the esophagus and beyond).

Treatment of esophageal cancer depends on many factors, including the stage of the cancer and the overall health of the patient.

  • Surgery. Part or all of the esophagus may be removed.
  • Radiation therapy. Kills cancer cells with radiation.
  • Chemotherapy. Powerful drugs that target cancer cells throughout the body. Typically used in combination with radiation therapy and/or surgery.
  • Photodynamic therapy. Targets early cancer cells with a special laser light.
  • Electrocoagulation. Uses electric current to destroy early cancer cells. 

Endoscopic mucosal resection may be done to treat precancers or very small early cancers by removing the inner lining of the esophagus. Radiofrequency ablation treatment using a device that targets cancer cells with radiofrequency energy is sometimes used for early cancers.

In addition, your doctor may recommend that you take part in a clinical trial, in which new drugs or treatments are tested in patients. The success of these tests helps determine if the drugs or treatments will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

How Are the Stages of Esophageal Cancer Treated?

Treatment options for esophageal cancer by stage involve the following:

  • Stage 0. Usually surgery. Other options include photodynamic therapy, radiofrequency ablation, or endoscopic muscosal resection.
  • Stage I, II, and III. Surgery, clinical trials of chemotherapy and radiation, or clinical trials of new therapies.
  • Stage IV. Chemotherapy, radiation, laser therapy, electrocoagulation therapy, or clinical trials. Treatment for this stage focuses on "palliative" therapy. Palliative therapy is meant to relieve the pain and difficulty swallowing caused by cancer, and is often given to patients who are in an advanced stage of cancer, or who are near the end of their lives.

According to the American Cancer Society, the percentages of people who live for at least five years after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer (taking into account that some people with esophageal cancer will have other causes of death) is 38% for localized cancer to the esophagus, 20% for cancer that has spread regionally, and 3% with distant cancer spread. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 28, 2013
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