Few diseases strike fear in the hearts of men, women, and, sadly, some children more than being diagnosed with cancer. According to a study published by the American Cancer Society), in 2022, nearly 2 million people were diagnosed with cancer. Of those, close to 610,000 lost their lives to the disease, which causes cells in the body to divide uncontrollably and eventually destroy normal, healthy tissue. Something especially concerning as it relates to cancer is the disease can strike at any time and can impact just about any part of the body. Named after the part of the body where it first originated, there are around 100 known cancers, the most popular of which include breast, lung, prostate, and colorectal cancers.
Why Esophageal Cancer Is One of the Worst Cancers That Can Attack the Body
Some cancers are worse than others due to how they attack the body and quickly metastasize. That’s the case when it comes to esophageal cancer, a disease that the National Cancer Institute defines as a disease in which malignant cells form in the previously healthy tissues of the esophagus. For those not so well versed in anatomy and physiology, the esophagus is a long, hollow, and muscular tube responsible for moving food and liquid from our throats to our stomachs to wrap up the digestive process.
Esophageal cancer disrupts the digestive process, which triggers weight loss and chronic fatigue due to severe malnutrition. Making up only 1% of cancers in the U.S., esophageal cancer is a rarity compared to other cancers. And it generally doesn’t trigger symptoms until it is well advanced, which is when it is much harder to treat. According to one study out of the United Kingdom, approximately 75% of the esophagus’ circumference has to be affected by cancer before symptoms start to appear. Symptoms commonly associated with late-stage esophageal cancer typically include the following:
- Bone pain if cancer has metastasized to bones
- Chest pain
- Chronic coughing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting and coughing up blood
- Weight loss
Most people are diagnosed with this type of cancer after it advances to stage 3 or stage 4, right around when they first start experiencing symptoms. Sadly, this is when the 5-year survival rate is the lowest, typically 5%. If detected early, the 5-year survival rate of the disease is around 47%. The median 5-year survival rate for it is about 20%.
Types of Esophageal Cancer
There are two primary kinds of esophageal cancer, and the type an individual has can dictate the treatment options that are available to them. Those two types include
This form begins in the cells that make up the mucus-secreting glands of the esophagus. Most common among Caucasian men, adenocarcinoma generally starts in the lower esophagus and is the most commonly diagnosed form of esophageal cancer in the U.S.
Squamous cell carcinoma
This form is most common among African American men, and it’s known to attack the flat, thin cells in the upper and middle sections of the esophagus. Worldwide, squamous cell carcinoma is the most common form of esophageal cancer.
Who Is Most Likely To Develop One of the Two Primary Types of Esophageal Cancer
Whether we’re discussing adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, the following can increase the risk of developing either form of esophageal cancer:
- Barrett’s esophagus
- Chronic bile reflux
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Having undergone radiation treatments involving the chest or upper abdomen
- Not consuming enough fruits and vegetables
Esophageal Cancer Treatments
Current treatments are not too dissimilar from the ones prescribed for other cancers; they generally include
Surgery – This approach is employed if esophageal cancer has not metastasized to other parts of the body, and it entails surgically removing as much of the diseased esophagus as possible.
Radiation therapy – Sometimes done before or after surgery or as a stand-alone esophageal cancer treatment modality, radiation therapy entails using X-rays or another form of radiation to destroy cancer cells in the esophagus.
**Chemotherapy – **Frequently combined with radiation, chemotherapy entails using FDA-approved medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy is the usual go-to for individuals with esophageal cancer that has metastasized.
Targeted therapy – This treatment uses drugs that target and override the proteins that dictate how cancer cells grow, divide, and spread in the body.
New Esophageal Cancer Research and New Esophageal Cancer Treatments
Although esophageal cancer accounts for only 1% of all cancers in the U.S., it is still heavily researched. Available data shows researchers are looking at new ways to prevent the disease, diagnose it sooner, and treat it more effectively. Some of the things they are looking at specifically include
Chemoprevention – While more research is needed to evaluate safety and efficacy, researchers believe aspirin and an acid-reducing medication, a regimen known as chemoprevention, may prevent Barrett’s esophagus from turning into esophageal cancer.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scans – While PET scans have long been an effective tool for diagnosing and staging esophageal cancer, researchers are looking into the possibility of also using this technology to gauge how effective radiation, chemotherapy, and other cancer-fighting treatments are in shrinking cancerous tumors.
New cancer-fighting drugs – There is a handful of chemotherapy drugs on the market that physicians prescribe to individuals diagnosed with esophageal cancer. They include fluorouracil (5FU) or capecitabine (Xeloda), cisplatin, oxaliplatin or carboplatin, paclitaxel or docetaxel, and epirubicin. As of the writing of this article, researchers are looking at new and more effective drugs to treat esophageal cancer. They are also looking into new immunotherapy and targeted therapy drugs.
In summary, there is hope for the many people diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Ongoing esophageal cancer research is helping to break new ground in the realm of new esophageal cancer treatments aimed at early detection and extending and improving the lives of more people diagnosed with the disease.