April is Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month. While esophageal cancer is relatively rare in the U.S., cases are rising among certain patient populations.
The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 20,000 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2022. Esophageal cancer survival rates are improving. Fifty years ago, only about 5% of patients survived at least 5 years after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Now, about 20% of patients survive at least 5 years following a diagnosis.
The most common form of esophageal cancer primarily affects white men over the age of 55. This is one of the fastest growing cancers in the U.S.
Prevention and early detection are the best defense against esophageal cancer.
How does the esophagus work?
The esophagus is a muscular tube, or passage, that connects the throat with the stomach. It functions as an important part of the digestive system.
As food or liquid comes toward the esophagus, the upper esophageal sphincter will relax or open. When there’s no food or liquid, it stays closed.
Muscular contractions push food and liquid down through the esophagus. At the opening of the lower esophagus, another ring-shaped muscle, the lower esophageal sphincter, senses the food and liquid. It relaxes and lets the materials pass through to your stomach. In the absence of food or liquid, this sphincter remains shut to prevent stomach acid and digestive juices from getting into the esophagus.
What is esophageal cancer?
When abnormal cells begin to grow out of control in the esophageal tissue, esophageal cancer can occur. Cancerous cells grow inside lining of the esophagus and spread outward through the muscular tube. The two most common forms of esophageal cancer are squamous cell carcinoma, most often found in the upper and middle part of the esophagus, and adenocarcinoma, which usually forms in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach.
If you are diagnosed with esophageal cancer, your treatment options may include:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted drug therapy
What increases someone’s risk for esophageal cancer?
The most common risk factors for esophageal cancer include:
- Heavy drinking
- Barrett’s esophagus
- Men over the age of 55 are also at greater risk of developing esophageal cancer
What are the signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer?
Talk with your doctor right away if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Chest pain, burning, or pressure
- Worsening of heartburn or indigestion
- Unintentional weight loss
What is the connection between gastroesophageal reflux, Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer?
Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) is a common condition that affects millions of Americans. With this condition, stomach acid flows back into the esophagus, irritating the lining of the muscle and leaving a sour taste in the mouth. GERD can be chronic, and many patients will seek to manage the condition on their own. Outpatient treatment options are available with the highly trained, compassionate providers at South Denver GI.
It’s estimated that 10 to 20% of patients diagnosed with GERD will develop Barrett’s esophagus. This condition causes a change in the cells of the esophagus. Under a microscope, healthy esophageal tissues will appear pale and glossy, while Barrett’s esophagus causes tissues to appear red and velvety. If left untreated, Barrett’s esophagus can progress to esophageal cancer.
Is it possible for esophageal cancer to be detected in the precancerous stage?
Early detection of Barrett’s esophagus is critical to preventing esophageal cancer. Patients with chronic GERD or who have been diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus should be screened for cancer every 3-5 years.
In 2018, Denver GI was the first GI practice in Denver to add WATS3D to esophageal biopsies to help identify precancerous cells in the esophagus at earlier stages. This technology combines artificial intelligence with 3D imaging.
The WATS3D biopsy brush results in a tissue sample that is 50X thicker than the current clinical standard and cannot be analyzed by a standard microscope. It collects a more comprehensive tissue sample from a much broader area of the esophagus. As a result, cells can be treated or removed before they become cancerous.
Watch this video to learn more about WATS3D.
If you’re experiencing chronic heartburn or symptoms of esophageal cancer, South Denver GI can help. Call 303-788-8888 or Schedule an Appointment now. Your provider will use state-of-the-art technology to identify and remove precancerous cells in the esophagus.