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Types of Treatment for Esophageal Cancer

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 5/4/2011

There are several types of treatment for esophageal cancer. This article briefly discusses all options, including traditional ones such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Newer ones such as photodynamic therapy and electrocoagulation are also mentioned.

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    Esophageal Cancer

    Esophageal cancer occurs when cancer cells proliferate in the esophagus, which is the muscular, hollow tube that transports food and liquids from the throat to the stomach. This usually begins at the inside lining of the esophagus and spreads to the outer tissue layers as it progresses.

    Currently, five standard kinds of esophageal cancer treatment are used. These are:

    • Surgery
    • Chemotherapy
    • Radiation therapy
    • Photodynamic therapy
    • Electrocoagulation
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    Surgery

    A treatment often used for early stage esophageal cancer is the surgical removal of a part of the esophagus. The amount of tissue removed depends on the size and location of the developing cancer cells. The general name for this type of operation is esophagectomy. During the operation, the surgeon will also remove some lymph nodes. These are subsequently sent to the laboratory to help determine the exact nature of the cancer.

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    Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy can be a treatment on its own or it may be used in conjunction with surgery. If the cancer in the esophagus cannot be removed, chemotherapy is used to try to make the tumors shrink, which might make surgery a possibility. If the cancer has spread to other tissues, you will also receive chemotherapy before surgery. This is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy.

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    Radiation Therapy

    Radiation therapy can also be used as a treatment on its own or as a complement to surgery. It is often used as a means to prevent the cancer from reemerging after surgery. Radiation therapy is painless but can make the patient's throat sore. The duration of the treatment depends on the size and type of esophageal cancer. Usually, treatment is administered a few minutes every day for a few weeks.

    Some forms of radiation therapy are given inside the body, which is known as internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. With the aid of a flexible tube, a radiation source is inserted in the esophagus. This type of therapy is most often used when an advanced cancer is preventing smooth swallowing.

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    Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)

    Photodynamic therapy, or PDT, is a type of laser treatment using low-powered lasers in combination with a light sensitive drug. It is a relatively new type of treatment that involves releasing a photosensitizing agent or light sensitive drug into the body of the patient. This drug will spread through the body and will be absorbed by the cells of the body. The area where the cancer is located is exposed to laser light with the aid of an endoscope, which results in the destruction of the cancer cells in the beam.

    This type of treatment is often used to alleviate symptoms of advanced esophageal cancer such as having trouble swallowing.

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    Electrocoagulation

    This is a palliative type of treatment, which is used to help in relieving some of the symptoms by removing blockades that can result from the tumor. By applying an electric current, the cancer cells are heated to the point of destruction. By transmitting a high frequency electrical current to tissues, the molecules within these tissues will start vibrating vigorously and heat up, causing coagulation of proteins within the tissue, effectively killing it.