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What is Esophageal Cancer?
Cancer that develops within the tissues that line the esophagus is called esophageal cancer. The esophagus is the muscular tube that passes food from the throat into the stomach. Esophageal cancer growth is classified within four stages. In 3rd stage esophageal cancer, the cancer has already spread to the outer esophagus wall and may have already spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues near the esophagus.
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Causes and Risk Factors
There are several factors that increase one’s risk for esophageal cancer. Age is one of the biggest risk factors, and people over the age of 65 face the highest risk of developing this cancer. In addition, males in the United States are found to be three times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer. Smoking and heavy drinking pose significant risks, and the two habits act together to increase the risk even further. Obesity is found to increase the risk of esophageal cancer and some studies indicate that a diet low in fruits and vegetables poses a risk for developing esophageal cancer, as well. Finally, a history of acid reflux, or the development of Barrett esophagus, can cause an increased risk for esophageal cancer.
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Signs and Symptoms
Esophageal cancer may be difficult to detect in its earliest stages, and some of the most likely symptoms are common to a number of conditions. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- A hoarse voice or a cough that does not disappear within two weeks
- Pain during swallowing
- Having food get stuck in the esophagus, or having food come back up
- Weight loss
- Pain in the back or chest
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Testing and Diagnosis
When symptoms appear suggesting the possibility of esophageal cancer, doctors perform a physical examination and will evaluate the patient's family and personal health history. A patient will have blood tests performed, and may also need to have a barium swallow, endoscopy or biopsy for further evaluation. These tests will provide doctors the opportunity to evaluate the esophagus tissues and assess any areas of concern. If cancer cells are determined to be present, staging and further testing will be done to determine a course of treatment.
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Treatment for esophageal cancer will vary slightly depending on the stage of the disease, but may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery or a combination of these treatments. Third stage esophageal cancer will typically involve surgery and chemoradiation, a treatment that combines radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Patients with this stage of cancer may also want to consider clinical trials that focus on chemoradiation first with surgery afterwards.
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Prognosis and Statistics
Esophageal cancer can be difficult to detect in its early stages, and challenging to treat effectively as it progresses. There are currently estimated to be over 16,600 new cases of esophageal cancer each year, with approximately 14,500 deaths. Early detection is essential for successful treatment. Being aware of symptoms and risk factors, and working diligently with doctors if there is cause for concern, is crucial. Third stage esophageal cancer does not usually have a promising prognosis, though there are treatments and clinical trials available to treat the cancer or provide relief from the condition.
National Cancer Institute - http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/esophagus
Mayo Clinic - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/esophageal-cancer/DS00500
GI Tract.info - http://www.gitract.info/articles/esophageal-disorders/esophageal-cancer.php