Cancer of the Oesophagus

Cancer of the oesophagus (oesophageal cancer)


What is oesophageal cancer?

Cancer of the oesophagus (the gullet or swallowing tube) occurs most often in people between 60 and 70 and usually affects the lower part of the gullet. It occurs when abnormal cells in the oesophagus divide too often, without control. The mass of extra tissue is called a tumour and can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The cancer cells can break away from the tumour and enter the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. This is how the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. It is more common in men and in older people.

What causes oesophageal cancer?

The causes of oesophageal cancer are not fully understood but a number of factors are thought to increase the risk.

  • In some cases, C cancer of the oesophagus may run in families.
  • Smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol are contributing factors.
  • Chronic irritation resulting from acid reflux from the stomach may contribute. Irritated stomach tissue, from the digestive disorder reflux.
  • Poor nutrition.
  • Radiation therapy for another disease may contribute to cancer of the oesophagus.

What are the symptoms of oesophageal cancer?

Small tumours generally do not cause pain. When symptoms do occur, they usually include:

  • Difficulty in swallowing, first with solids and later with fluids.
  • Loss of appetite and associated weight loss.
  • Frequent sensation that food has become stuck between the middle chest and the stomach.
  • Vomiting blood.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Frequent hiccups.
  • Respiratory tract infections are common because of regurgitation of food into the respiratory tract (bronchi and lungs).
  • As the tumour worsens, liquids may become difficult to swallow.
  • Indigestion, heartburn, vomiting and frequent choking, as the tumour grows.

How is it treated?

Treatment choices depend on the location, size and lymph node involvement, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, as well as the patient's age, general health and personal preferences.

Surgery can be used. If the tumour blocks the oesophagus, but cannot be removed, the surgeon may construct an alternative bypass, as a pathway to the stomach.

Radiation and chemotherapy can may also be used.

In cases where obstruction prevents swallowing, a rigid tube may be inserted through the tumour to allow swallowing of liquid and semi-liquid food.

Biological treatment, which assists the body's natural cancer immune system through the use of drugs, is a suitable form of treatment. People should undergo regular check-ups after remission.

What does the future hold?

Unfortunately the prognosis for advanced carcinoma of the oesophagus is not good. Early detection and treatment is essential to improve the prognosis.

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