Oesophageal cancer

What is oesophageal cancer?

Oesophageal cancer is a type of cancer that affects the oesophagus (gullet or food pipe), which is the long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. It occurs when abnormal cells grow in an uncontrollable way. It is more common in people in their 60s and 70s and occurs in men more than women.

What are the symptoms of oesophageal cancer?

The symptoms of oesophageal cancer include:

  • Difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia) – this feels like a pain or burning sensation in the throat or chest.
  • Indigestion – occurs when acid from the stomach goes back into the oesophagus.
  • Heartburn – which is a burning chest pain after eating.
  • Weight loss – follows as a result of not being able to eat food because of the pain.
  • Pain in the throat  - and behind the breastbone
  • A persistent cough
  • Dark poo – faeces may be almost black if the oesophagus bleeds from cancer.

What are the causes of oesophageal cancer?

The exact cause is unknown but persistent gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), smoking, excessive alcohol, being overweight and having an unhealthy diet are risk factors for the disease.

How is oesophageal cancer diagnosed?

The cancer is diagnosed using an endoscopy, which allows the doctor to see inside the oesophagus. The small, thin tube with a camera and light on the end is passed into the mouth and down towards the stomach. Sample tissues are removed so that they can be checked under a microscope. The other test used is a barium swallow, where the white liquid is swallowed and X-rays are taken. The barium highlights the lining of the oesophagus so it can show whether there is anything blocking the oesophagus.

What are the treatments for oesophageal cancer?

The treatment plan for oesophageal cancer depends on where in the oesophagus the cancer is and how big it is. It depends on whether cancer has spread anywhere else in the body and on the patient’s general health.

If it is diagnosed during an early stage, it may be possible to cure it with the surgical removal of the affected area of the oesophagus. Chemotherapy kills the cancerous cells and shrinks the tumour.

If the cancer is diagnosed at a later stage, the cure is not achievable but surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be used to keep cancer under control and relieve symptoms.

What’s the outlook for oesophageal cancer?

The outlook depends on the stage of oesophageal cancer. It depends on how far the disease has spread, the age and the general health of the patient.

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