While these symptoms can be signs of other difficulties, it's important to get them checked if they persist.
A second problem that arises is weight loss due to the problems associated with swallowing. Consulting a dietitian in order to maintain a good nutritional status is an important step in treating esophageal cancer. Poor nutrition can slow the healing process.
Finally, the cancer can spread to the rest of the body, most commonly the lungs and liver.
Complications can arise from the treatment as well as from the cancer, especially if the cancer has spread.
- stage 0: very early cancer, found only in the first layer of the lining
- stage 1: cancer is still early in development, is in a small part of the esophagus but hasn't spread
- stage 2: cancer has spread deeper into the esophagus and may have invaded the lymph nodes near the esophagus
- stage 3: cancer has spread even deeper in the esophagus wall or has spread to nearby tissues and lymph nodes
- stage 4: cancer has spread to other parts of the body (usually the lungs or liver, although it may spread to other areas of the body as well)
- recurrent: cancer that has returned after treatment
Treatment and Prevention
The treatment of esophageal cancer depends on the stage of the illness or the progression of the disease. Like most cancers, the options for treatment are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of the three.
Surgical treatment targets the cancer and aims at removing it. This is the most common treatment for esophageal cancer. Before recommending surgery, your doctor will consider your overall health as the operation can prove a long and demanding process.
If the entire esophagus is removed, the surgeon may create a new passage in the chest for food to pass through into the rest of the gastrointestinal tract using the bowel or stomach. Several different approaches can be used, with incisions required in the neck, chest, or abdomen.
Often the surgeon will begin with a "mini" operation on the abdomen to ensure no cancer has spread there. Occasionally, some parts of the procedure can be performed by inserting a thin tube with a light on the end into either the abdomen (laparoscopy) or chest area (thoracoscopy). The use of laparoscopy and thoracoscopy can help minimize the side effects after the operation.
In rare cases, for cancers very high in the esophagus (near the mouth or throat), surgery requires the removal of the structures in the neck, such as the voice box.
Swallowing might be difficult following the surgery, and reflux is often a problem. At first, the diet should be liquid, and then should progress to soft foods. A stent (a special type of tube) can also be left in place to widen the esophagus to make eating easier.
If surgery is not possible, a laser may be used to remove tumour cells and relieve blockages of the esophagus. To allow the esophagus to heal after surgery, stomach tubes passing directly through the skin into the stomach may allow feeding. These tubes are easily inserted at the time of surgery, or may even be inserted using a local anesthetic without involving a hospital stay.
Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, can be either external or internal. External radiotherapy is aimed directly at the cancerous cells. Internal radiotherapy involves inserting a radioactive substance directly into the esophagus.
For people undergoing radiation therapy, there are several side effects to watch for. They include:
- loss of or change in your sense of taste or smell
- red, dry skin
- dry mouth
- sensitive mouth and gums
- sores in the mouth
- sore throat
- voice changes
These reactions are usually temporary but can cause great discomfort during treatment. Your health care team may be able to offer tips to help reduce the side effects.
Chemotherapy is treatment using medications that kill the cancer cells. Chemotherapy medications are usually injected directly into the veins. Because the medications then circulate throughout the body, the side effects, although temporary, are more generalized than those from radiotherapy. They include:
- hair loss
- increased risk of infection
- mouth sores
- nausea and vomiting
Chemotherapy is often given in conjunction with radiotherapy and in advanced stages of the disease, or where the person is too frail to tolerate surgery. This combination may offer similar chances for survival and cure as surgery.
Photodynamic therapy may be used to relieve the symptoms of esophageal cancer. This involves taking a medication to make the cancer cells more sensitive to light. Then, the affected area is exposed to a special light source, which kills the cancer cells.
After treatment for esophageal cancer, it's crucial to keep the esophagus open. To do so, esophageal dilation or bougienage might be performed. This procedure dilates (widens) the esophagus, making swallowing easier. This is not a permanent solution and might need to be repeated regularly.
As with many cancers, minimizing the risks could decrease the chances of developing esophageal cancer. This means stopping smoking, drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet, and having any persistent throat problems checked by a doctor.
At this point, the best prevention is to be aware of the possible signs and symptoms and to act on them as soon as possible.