Being Well

Esophageal Cancer: What You Need to Know to Stay Healthy

Smoking and drinking increase your risk of developing cancer in your esophagus. Going to annual check-ups with your doctor and maintaining a healthy weight can help.

Esophageal cancer is likely not on your list of things to worry about or a cancer you’re preoccupied with preventing. After all, it’s relatively uncommon. It is, however, according to World Journal of Gastroenterology (WJG), considered one of the fastest growing cancers in the world. In the United States, nearly 17,000 people will be diagnosed with it this year, and it will account for more than 15,000 deaths, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society. But don’t fret—there is good news. You can make easy lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of this disease.

Types of Esophageal Cancer

Your esophagus is the tube that moves food and drink from your throat to your stomach. As the American Cancer Society says, this cancer strikes men three to four times more often than women. But, this imbalance is not the same among the different types. Adenocarcinoma is more common among white men, whereas squamous cell carcinoma is more common among white women and black people of both sexes, according to WJG.

Not all cancers of the esophagus are the same. They can be divided into two primary types, which have distinct origins, features, risk factors and outlooks. The most common type is called adenocarcinoma, which grows in the mucus-forming glands of your esophagus, according to the Mayo Clinic. The next most common type is called squamous cells carcinoma, which grows in the flat cells lining your esophagus. Although both types are called esophageal cancer, they’re different diseases with different features. Furthermore, they’re both treated with similar therapies (like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation), but when and under what circumstances those treatment methods are used varies.

Although the outlook of both types is similar, patients with adenocarcinoma appear to have a slightly better outlook than those with squamous cell carcinoma, according to the American Cancer Society. With both types of this cancer, the length of time patients live varies by how advanced the disease is. For example, patients with disease that is completely contained within the esophagus have a 40 percent chance of living five years, compared with only 4 percent for patients whose disease has spread to organs or lymph nodes.

Risk Factors to Consider

Smoking increases the risk of both adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Other risk factors are important to only one type of esophageal cancer, with alcohol and genetics being clearly associated with squamous cell carcinoma. Obesity and certain digestive conditions—such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and Barrett’s esophagus—increase the risk of adenocarcinoma, according to the WJG report.

If you’re worried about these conditions or some of your habits affecting your health, talk to your doctor and get on an effective plan to quit smoking or lose weight. A good way to help prevent cancer is to set goals each month and year to reevaluate and take control of your health. Keep track of your progress so you can see how far you’ve come. As well, make sure to go to regular check-ups with your physician to stay on top of any lingering health concerns.

With adenocarcinoma, the report suggests that certain medications actually decrease the likelihood of GERD or Barrett’s esophagus progressing to cancer. These medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, proton pump inhibitors (PPI) like Nexium and statins like Lipitor. Talk to your doctor if you have either of these conditions and are interested in taking medication to reduce your risk of developing adenocarcinoma.

The numbers are scary, but you have options available to work towards prevention. The first step is to take care of yourself and your health.

Although esophageal cancer is life threatening, there are lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your risk. Talk to your doctor about taking these positive steps towards staying healthy.

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Jennifer Klem, PhD