The esophagus is a muscular tube between the mouth and stomach. It's about 25 cm to 35 cm (10 to 14 inches) long in the average adult and about 2 cm (¾ inch) wide. The esophagus is made up of several layers. The cancer usually begins in the innermost layer and works its way outwards. Cancer can occur anywhere along the length of the esophagus.
Esophageal cancer is more common among men than women and is found more often in people of African descent than in Caucasians. Although it accounts for approximately 1% of all cancers in the North American population, esophageal cancer is the second most common cancer in parts of Asia.
As with most cancers, the actual causes of esophageal cancer are unknown. There are, however, some known risk factors in its development. Some of these include:
Some cancerous tumours in the esophagus have spread there from elsewhere in the body. Cancers of the larynx, pharynx, tonsils, lungs, breast, liver, kidney, prostate, testicles, bone, and skin can all spread to the esophagus.
People with certain medical conditions can have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. These conditions include:
The symptoms of esophageal cancer generally don't begin to show until the tumour has progressed. They include:
While these symptoms can be signs of other difficulties, it's important to get them checked if they persist.
One of the most obvious problems associated with this type of cancer is difficulty swallowing. As the tumour gets larger, swallowing firm food becomes impossible and eventually only fluids can get by. After surgery where part of the esophagus is removed, swallowing may be hard for a time but should improve as healing progresses.
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.