What is oesophageal cancer?
Oesophageal cancer, also known as gullet cancer, is a form of cancer that has its beginnings in the oesophagus (also known as the food pipe), which is part of the digestive system. Cancer can develop in any part of the oesophagus and there are different types of oesophageal cancer, with the two most common types being squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. The oesophagus contains lymph nodes and these are often the first place cancer spreads from the original site. Oesophageal cancer is becoming more common in North America and Europe, with around 7,800 cases identified in the UK every year.
What causes oesophageal cancer?
The exact cause of oesophageal cancer is unknown in many cases, though some dangers have been identified. These include:
- Long-term acid reflux
- Age: the risk increases as you get older and the disease is rare among people less than the age of 40
- Gender: oesophageal cancer is more widespread in men than women
- Being overweight
- A poor diet
- Previous cancer treatment
Symptoms of oesophageal cancer
Symptoms of oesophageal cancer include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Difficulty swallowing
- Coughing up blood
- Pain in the throat or back
How is oesophageal cancer diagnosed?
If you feel unwell or you develop symptoms you should see your GP. They will ask you some questions and carry out an examination. You will be referred to a specialist if your GP suspects you have oesophageal cancer, of which tests carried out are likely to include an oesophagoscopy, an endoscopy and a barium swallow. Doctors will analyse the findings of the tests to reach a firm diagnosis.
How is oesophageal cancer treated?
Oesophageal cancer can be treated using surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy and sometimes a combination of treatments will be used. The treatment used will depend on factors such as the grade and stage of the cancer, the individual's general health and the area of the oesophagus affected. Surgery is not suitable for everyone and sometimes a mix of chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used prior to surgery to increase the chance of surgery being successful.
What is the outlook for people with oesophageal cancer?
The outlook, like most other degrees of cancer, depends heavily on the time of diagnosis and the stage of the cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment improves survival rates significantly. The outlook will also depend on how well the cancer responds to treatment. In general the outlook for oesophageal cancer is not very good, though effective treatment may be possible if diagnosis is made early.
Living with oesophageal cancer
Living with oesophageal cancer is very hard, especially if the prognosis is not optimistic. If you are struggling to accept your diagnosis of oesophageal cancer or you have questions, need more information or advice, you can speak to members of your care team or get in touch with one of the UK cancer charities that have a great deal of experience in working with people with cancer.