You may not be familiar with esophageal cancer but after news spread of Traci Braxton’s death from the disease on Mar. 12, an increasing number of people have taken upon themselves to learn even more. The singer who reportedly had been privately undergoing treatment, was only 50 years old.
"Esophageal cancer is rare and can be due to one of two types of cancer: squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma," says Tonia L. Farmer, MD, a board-certified Otolaryngologist/Head, and Neck surgeon and attending physician at St. Joseph Health Center and Trumbull Memorial Hospital. "Squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus usually involves the upper and middle parts of the esophagus and is linked to smoking and drinking alcohol."
The esophagus is the muscular tube responsible for carrying food and liquids from your mouth and throat to your stomach. Esophageal cancer is when malignant cells form in the lining of the esophagus. "Adenocarcinoma usually involves the lower part of the esophagus and is more associated with [gastroesophageal] reflux disease and Barrett's esophagus," says Farmer.
According to the National Institutes of Health, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the most common problem with the esophagus. GERD can occur when gastric acid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus, and Barrett's esophagus is caused by damage due to GERD. “Barrett's esophagus is a precancerous condition so individuals with the condition should be getting regular follow up with a gastroenterology specialist,” advises Farmer.
RELATED: Traci Braxton Dies Of Cancer
Causes of Esophageal Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, the exact cause of most esophageal cancers is unknown; however, there are certain risk factors.
"Anything that causes a chronic irritation of the esophageal lining could potentially cause cancer," says Farmer. "Cells in the esophagus will change or mutate, resulting in abnormal growth, causing a tumor. These cancerous tumors can invade through the esophagus and spread to other parts of the body (metastasize)."
The most common risks include:
- Reflux disease (GERD)
- Barrett's esophagus
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Drinking very hot liquids
- Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
Lesser known risks factors include:
- Achalasia (tightening of the lower esophagus preventing food from passing into the stomach)
- Inherited gene mutations
Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer
While you may not experience symptoms as the cancer progresses at first, there are common changes in your body that you may notice. They include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chest pain
- Back pain
- Worsening indigestion/heartburn
- Change in voice
- Unexplained weight loss
- Frequent choking
- Chronic cough
Still, esophageal cancer can be confused with reflux or heartburn and with other conditions such as esophagitis (inflammation in the esophagus), esophageal ulcer, and esophageal varices (dilated veins in the esophagus). “People should see a doctor if symptoms persist despite usual treatment such as reflux medication,” says Farmer.
Who’s Most at Risk for Developing the Disease
“It's not exactly known why, but African Americans are at increased risk of developing the squamous cell carcinoma form of esophageal cancer. Specifically, African American men who smoke and drink alcohol,” says Farmer.
Conversely, adenocarcinoma is more common in white people. Additionally, men, in general, are three to four times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than women, and your risk of developing esophageal cancer increases as you age. In fact, people between the ages of 45 and 70 are at a higher risk of developing the disease.
Prevention and Outlook of Esophageal Cancer
“Preventative care is always the best care,” says Famer. So, talking about screenings and early interventions is key to treating or controlling GERD and other esophageal issues. Additional measures include losing weight, ceasing from smoking and drinking alcohol, eating more fruits and vegetables, and exercising. “The overall survival rate for esophageal cancer is 20%, and if it is caught early, survival rates are much higher,” she says.
As research continues to go deeper to better understand demographic and ethnic disparities between the types of esophageal cancer, it is vital to get regular check-ups. Early detection is key to managing this and other types of chronic conditions.