Detecting esophageal cancer can be tricky.
That’s because there often are no signs or symptoms in its early stages. Or, those that are noticeable resemble other medical conditions or problems.
Troublesome symptoms usually don’t appear until the disease is more advanced. And by then, treatment options may be limited.
Nearly 17,000 people will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2015. And, according to the American Cancer Society, more than 15,000 deaths are expected.
Men are three times more likely than women to have cancer of the esophagus. Those who are age 55 or older, obese, or use alcohol and tobacco also have a greater risk of developing this particular version of the Big C.
While catching it early offers the best chance for survival, avoiding esophageal cancer altogether is even better.
An ounce of prevention
To prevent esophageal cancer, don’t ignore heartburn, acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease, also called GERD.
With these conditions, acid from your stomach irritates the lining of your esophagus. This constant irritation can eventually cause changes in the cells and lead to cancer.
The most important thing you can do is work with your doctor to get any symptoms under control.
Any untreated reflux increases the risk of developing esophageal cancer. In fact, reflux-induced esophageal cancer is the fastest growing cancer in the U.S.
If you’ve had reflux symptoms for several years already, talk to your doctor about an endoscopy, a procedure that uses a flexible scope to examine your esophagus and stomach, to determine if any damage has been done.
Watch for danger signs
Unlike breast or prostate cancers, there’s no across-the-board screening for esophageal cancer, said Mainor Antillon, MD, chief of gastroenterology for Spectrum Health Medical Group.
But there are some signs that could signal trouble.
“Barrett’s esophagus is the No. 1 risk factor for developing esophageal cancer,” he said.
Barrett’s is caused by chronic GERD that changes the lining of the esophagus so that it resembles intestinal tissue. If you’ve been diagnosed with Barrett’s, continue to see your doctor for careful monitoring, even if your symptoms go away.
Difficult or painful swallowing, also called dysphagia, can signal cancer in the esophagus or the upper gastrointestinal tract. If it’s hard to swallow, call your doctor right away—don’t wait weeks or months to have it checked out.
Other danger signs include pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades, severe weight loss without trying, and hoarseness or chronic cough.
ESD: A good choice for for early cancer
Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are the most common options for treating esophageal cancer.
However, patients who are diagnosed very early may be eligible for minimally invasive endoscopic submucosal dissection, also called ESD.
The ESD procedure, which is standard practice in Japan, uses a very fine electrosurgical needle attached to an endoscope to remove large benign tumors and very early cancers from the esophagus, stomach and colon.
Spectrum Health is one of six locations in the U.S., and the only in Michigan, offering this treatment.
As compared with transhiatal esophagectomy or laparoscopic esophagectomy, the traditional surgical procedures for esophageal cancer, benefits of ESD include no incision, a reduced risk of complications, faster recovery, reduced pain and less time in the hospital,
“I’ve been using this technique for almost 10 years. Why take the whole esophagus when it may not be necessary?” Dr. Antillon said. “With ESD, there’s more than a 90 percent chance that you’ll be cured. If the cancer is too deep for ESD to help, you may still need surgery. But trying it first won’t burn any bridges.”