What is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the esophagus, which is a flexible tube connecting the throat to the stomach. Generally between 10 and 13 inches long, the esophagus contracts when one swallows, to push food down into the stomach. Mucus helps move this process along.

Ninety percent of esophageal cancers are one of two types: squamous cell or adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell refers to cancers that originate in the cells that line the esophagus; adenocarcinoma begins in the part of the esophagus that joins the stomach.

Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

Some people do not notice any symptoms until late in the disease. However, symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness or long-lasting cough
  • Regurgitating blood
  • Weight loss with unknown cause
  • Pain in the throat or back
  • Vomiting

Causes of Esophageal Cancer

The causes are not fully understood, but scientists have discovered several likely contributing factors. These include:

  • Advancing age. People over age 60 are more likely to develop the disease.
  • Gender. This cancer is more common in men than women.
  • Tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or using snuff or chewing tobacco greatly increases risk. For those who both smoke and drink, the risk is highest.
  • Acid reflux. When stomach acids flow back into the esophagus, irritation occurs. Over time, this irritation can lead to problems, including a condition called Barrett's esophagus, where cell changes often lead to cancer.
  • Previous history of head or neck cancers.
  • An unhealthy lifestyle, which means being overweight or eating a diet low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Refer a Patient

Call: 617.414.5600
Fax: 617.638.7382

Diagnostic Tests

Barium Swallow

A barium swallow (also called a contrast esophagram), is a series of x-rays of your esophagus. For the test, you will drink a barium-containing liquid, which coats the inside of the esophagus and makes its shape and contours appear on x-rays.

Bronchoscopy

During a bronchoscopy, your physician will give you a sedative and then pass a small, hollow tube (bronchoscope) through your nose and throat into the main airway of the lungs. He or she can then see any abnormal areas and extract a tissue sample for analysis.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan

A PET scan is used to detect cellular reactions to sugar. Abnormal cells tend to react and "light up" on the scan, thus helping physicians diagnose a variety of conditions. For the PET scan, a harmless chemical, called a radiotracer, is injected into your blood stream.

Pulmonary Function Test (PFT)

To understand how well your lungs are working, your physician may order a series of pulmonary function tests. With each breath you take in and breathe out, information is recorded about how much air your lungs take in, how the air moves through your lungs and how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your bloodstream.

Stress Test

A stress test is used to gain more information about how your heart functions during exercise. Your physician will monitor your heartbeat and blood flow as you walk on a treadmill, and will then be able to diagnose any problems as well as plan treatment.

Upper GI Endoscopy

An upper GI endoscopy looks at the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract including the esophagus, the stomach, and the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum. Gastroenterologists commonly perform this procedure as a way to evaluate and diagnose various problems, such as chronic heartburn (acid reflux), difficulty swallowing, stomach or abdominal pain, bleeding, ulcers, and tumors.

Treatments

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a medication or combination of medications used to treat cancer. Chemotherapy can be given orally (as a pill) or injected intravenously (IV).

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is the use of freezing diseased tissue or cells inside the body to eliminate those cells so the body can grow new, healthy ones.

Endoscopic Mucosal Resection

Endoscopic mucosal resection, or EMR, is one of the newer, more minimally invasive techniques we offer for our esophageal cancer patients who have small tumors that have not spread outside of the esophagus. It may also be beneficial for patients with Barrett's esophagus. In this simple procedure, we are able to locate, remove, and examine cancerous or precancerous lesions of the esophagus. The mucosa is the innermost lining of the esophagus, and it extends down into your gastrointestinal tract. Cancers in this tract often originate in the mucosa, thus making visualization and access to it essential for diagnosis and treatment.

Esophageal Stents

Sometimes esophageal cancer blocks the airway or presses on it and makes breathing difficult. Stent placement is one way to improve breathing and swallowing and to ease pain and discomfort. Stents are small tubes - usually made of mesh, metal or plastic - that are inserted into the esophagus. For esophageal cancer patients, metal stents tend to be more effective and lead to fewer complications than plastic stents. Typically, an endoscope, an instrument that allows us to view your throat, is used to thread an expandable stent into the esophagus. Once in place, it is released, pushing the esophageal walls open. Placing a stent is less invasive than surgery, allows for quick administration of nutrients/food and is reversible, providing a good palliative option. Stents can also be used to treat obstructions in other types of cancer (such as lung cancer), as well as to facilitate blood flow in arteries.

Esophagectomy

Esophagectomy is the surgical removal of the esophagus. Esophagectomy typically is recommended when the cancer has not spread to other parts of your body, and is potentially curable. In esophagectomy, most of your esophagus and nearby lymph nodes are removed, your stomach then moved up and attached to the remaining portion of your esophagus.

Microwave Ablation

Microwave ablation is a cancer treatment in which microwave energy is sent through a narrow, microwave antenna that has been placed inside a tumor. The microwave energy creates heat, which destroys the diseased cells and tissue. It is a newer method of treating lung cancer that can target and kill cancerous cells and relieve pain.

Photodynamic Therapy for Esophageal Cancer

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) can be used for some very small cancers or precancerous changes in the esophagus to try to eliminate disease. If the patient’s cancer is larger and causing symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or bleeding, PDT can be used to help these symptoms. Patients receive an injection of a light-sensitive drug that remains in cancer cells longer than in healthy cells.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation uses special equipment to deliver high-energy particles, such as x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons, to kill or damage cancer cells. Radiation (also called radiotherapy, irradiation, or x-ray therapy) can be delivered internally through seed implantation or externally using linear accelerators (called external beam radiotherapy, or EBRT).

Departments and Programs Who Treat This Condition

department

Thoracic Cancer

Our thoracic cancer team is skilled across specialties from surgery to radiology to pulmonologists and more. Our experts work together – and with you – to provide personalized, co…
department

Thoracic Surgery

The multidisciplinary team in the Division of Thoracic Surgery provides exceptional care and support for patients with diseases of the lung, chest, or esophagus, from diagnosis to…
department

Pulmonology

The Pulmonology Department comprehensive diagnosis, treatment, education, and rehabilitation services for a full range of pulmonary diseases and allergy conditions.
department

Radiation Oncology

The first step is a consultation with a radiation oncologist who works closely with other physicians and medical professionals to coordinate the best possible care for every patie…