What is Oesophageal Cancer?
The oesophagus, also known as the gullet /food pipe/ gastro-intestinal tract (GI tract), is a 25cm long muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach.
The main function of this pipe is to carry food, liquids, and saliva from the mouth to the stomach.
Oesophageal cancer is the growth of cancerous cells along the oesophagus. This type of cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide.
Types of Oesophageal Cancer
Just as with many other cancers, oesophageal cancer is classified into different types according to the cell it began from, such as:
- Adenocarcinoma: this oesophageal cancer starts in the cells of mucus-secreting glands in the oesophagus. Adenocarcinoma mostly occurs in the lower portion of the oesophagus.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: this type occurs most often in the upper and middle parts of the oesophagus in the squamous cells that line the surface of the oesophagus. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common oesophageal cancer worldwide.
Symptoms of Oesophageal Cancer
These cancer may not cause signs in the early stages but as they progress, the followings signs and symptoms may occur:
- Dysphagia (difficulty or pain in swallowing)
- Reduced appetite
- Weight loss
- Persistent acid indigestion or heartburn
- Chronic cough
- Coughing up blood
It is important to note that having any of the symptoms listed above does not necessarily mean that you have oesophageal cancer. You should however seek medical advice or have a test done to be certain.
Causes/Risk Factors of Oesophageal Cancer
The causes of oesophageal cancer remain unclear, but here are some of the known factors that may increase your risk of developing the disease:
- Ingestion of corrosive substances
- Exposure to nitrosamines through processed or barbecued meats and pickled vegetables
- Radiation treatment to the chest or upper abdomen
- Precancerous changes in the cells of the oesophagus (Barrett’s oesophagus)
- Drinking alcohol and smoking
- Other conditions such as bile reflux, Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disease or achalasia
Diagnosis of Oesophageal Cancer
Some of the tests used to diagnose oesophageal cancer include:
- Endoscopy: this involves passing a flexible tube with a light and camera down the oesophagus to examine the wall. It is the most common test as it gives a conclusive diagnosis and is referred to as an esophagogastroduodenoscopy procedure.
- Biopsy: this is the removal of a small amount of tissue in the oesophagus for examination.
- Imaging tests: using tests such as MRI, CT or PET-CT scans to take pictures of the inside parts of your body.
- Endoscopic Ultrasound: the use of waves to create a picture of the oesophagus.
Before starting a treatment decision, it is important to consider the potential side- effects of the treatment and other medical conditions that you may have. Here are some of the oesophageal cancer treatment options:
- Surgery: This is the removal of tumours through an operation. In most cases this type of treatment is advantageous when the tumour is relatively small
- Chemotherapy: This involves drugs taken orally or through the direct injection of a vein, muscle or the spinal fluid, to destroy cancer cells by ending their ability to grow and divide.
- Radiation: This form of treatment uses high energy rays to destroy cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: This treatment targets and blocks the cancer specific genes, proteins or tissue from growing and spreading.
- Immunotherapy: This, the latest form of cancer treatment, boosts the immune system to destroy cancer cells.
Prevention of Oesophageal Cancer
To prevent yourself from getting oesophageal cancer cancer or to reduce your risk factors, you should do the following:
- Avoid smoking
- Limit alcohol intake
- Maintain a normal weight
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables rich in fiber
- Go for regular check-ups if symptoms, like those mentioned above, persist