9 Surprising Facts About Esophageal Cancer

  • Learning esophageal cancer facts might help save your life.
    Esophageal cancer strikes the esophagus, a 10-inch long tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. While this is a relatively rare cancer (comprising only 1% of all diagnosed cancers in the United States), it is the seventh leading cause of cancer death in men. It is considered challenging to treat, especially when it is advanced. Unfortunately, it can be a silent killer, with symptoms usually not appearing until after it has spread, and an average five-year survival rate of only 19%. Understanding more about this illness can help you and your loved ones reduce your risk of esophageal cancer, or catch it early enough to save your lives.
  • 1. Men get esophageal cancer far more often than women.
    About 17,650 Americans were expected to be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2019 - about 78% of which were men (13,750), who are 3 to 4 times more likely than women to get this illness. About 16,080 men were expected to die from esophageal cancer in 2019, compared to 3,060 women. Black people also are more likely to die from this cancer than white people. Other esophageal cancer risk factors include being over 50 years of age; being overweight or obese; using tobacco; drinking alcohol; and having a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
  • 2. In the U.S., most esophageal cancer is linked to obesity.
    Two main types of esophageal cancer exist, with different risk factors and prognosis. Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, which is associated with being overweight and obese, has risen to become the most common type of esophageal cancer in the U.S. over the past 30 to 40 years, as the U.S. obesity crisis has worsened. The other, less common type is squamous cell esophageal cancer, which is tied to smoking and drinking alcohol. It has a lower survival rate than adenocarcinoma; is more common in blacks than whites; and is predominant in developing countries (where about 80% of esophageal cancers worldwide are diagnosed).
  • 3. Being an 'apple' rather than a 'pear' puts you at higher risk.
    People who are apple-shaped—with large but hard stomachs, or what's called "central obesity"—are more at risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. This type of fat, known as visceral fat, collects around internal and abdominal organs, and is more common in men. Unlike subcutaneous fat, which forms under the skin, you can't grab or pinch it. Subcutaneous fat is more common in women and people with pear shapes; this type of fat is less linked to esophageal cancer.
  • 4. Can't stop hiccupping? You may have esophageal cancer.
    Repeated or lengthy bouts of hiccupping can be a sign of esophageal cancer, and should be reported to your doctor. The most common symptom of esophageal cancer—experienced by about 90% of people with this condition—is having difficulty or pain swallowing, with the sensation described as feeling like you have something stuck in your throat. Other symptoms to watch for include hoarseness, chronic cough, indigestion or heartburn, pain behind your breastbone, bleeding from your esophagus or in your stool, and unexplained weight loss. Contact your doctor if you experience these.
  • 5. Acid reflux could lead to esophageal cancer.
    Don't ignore frequent heartburn and gastric reflux, where food backs up out of the stomach into the esophagus and can irritate the lining of the esophagus. Chronic irritation of the esophageal lining may contribute to developing esophageal cancer. Sometimes people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) develop a condition called Barrett's esophagus, which in rare instances can lead to precancer or cancer of the esophagus. If you have Barrett's esophagus, your doctor may treat you with acid-blocking medications and monitor you with endoscopic exams so if you develop cancer or precancer, it can be caught and treated early.
  • 6. Eating red meat and processed meat is a risk factor.
    Studies show that red meat in your diet raises your risk of both types of esophageal cancer. Eating red meat is associated with a higher risk of squamous cell esophageal cancer, while consuming processed meat is linked with adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. Cooking red meat at high heat is thought to contribute to the risk. Eating fish and poultry doesn't appear to raise the risk of this cancer. However, having a diet that is low in fruits, vegetables and certain vitamins and minerals, such as folate and lutein, appears to be an esophageal cancer risk factor.
  • 7. Drinking overly hot tea or other liquids might lead to esophageal cancer.
    Recent peer-reviewed research conducted in Iran found that people who drank about 2 to 3 mugs of tea heated to at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit daily were twice as likely to get squamous cell cancer of the esophagus than people who drank tea at lower temperatures. The Iranian study of 50,000 people followed them for 10 years, and echoed results of a 2018 study conducted in China. However, some cancer experts point out that no direct cause has been found, only correlation, and that other factors may be to blame, such as other dietary practices.
  • 8. A sponge on a string is a new tool to help doctors diagnose esophageal. cancer.
    The Cytosponge is a tiny, compressed sponge packed inside a clear pill that can be used to help doctors track abnormalities in the esophagus. You swallow the pill in your doctor's office, which causes the sponge to release and expand. As your doctor pulls the pill back up using an attached string, it collects esophageal cells along the way. These can tell the doctor whether you have Barrett's esophagus or other risk factors for esophageal cancer that might necessitate other, more invasive diagnostic tests, such as an endoscopy, bronchoscopy or biopsy.
  • 9. A healthy lifestyle may help prevent esophageal cancer.
    The same advice often touted as a way to avoid other cancers and illnesses also applies to esophageal cancer. Experts recommend you keep to a healthy weight, avoid smoking tobacco, limit alcohol consumption, exercise regularly, avoid red and processed meats, and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Researchers have yet to find a genetic link or easy screening test to help catch this cancer in its earliest stages. The best prescription for prevention is to avoid risky behaviors associated with the illness which has the added bonus of helping prevent other illnesses, too.
9 Surprising Facts About Esophageal Cancer
  1. Foods that Help Fight Cancer: A Focus on Esophageal Cancer. Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. https://www.roswellpark.org/article/foods-help-fight-cancer-focus-esophageal-cancer
  2. Cytosponge. Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons.
  3. https://www.cghjournal.org/article/S1542-3565(18)30809-7/pdf
  4. Esophageal Cancer: Diagnosis. Cancer.net (American Society of Clinical Oncology).
  5. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/esophageal-cancer/diagnosis
  6. Esophageal Cancer: Statistics. Cancer.net (American Society of Clinical Oncology). https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/esophageal-cancer/statistics
  7. Esophageal Cancer: Latest Research. Cancer.net (American Society of Clinical Oncology). https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/esophageal-cancer/latest-research
  8. Esophageal cancer facts. Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. https://www.seattlecca.org/diseases/esophageal-cancer/esophageal-cancer-facts
  9. Hiccups may signal underlying gullet cancer. New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9030-hiccups-may-signal-underlying-gullet-cancer/
  10. Esophageal Cancer Symptoms. Moffitt Cancer Center. https://moffitt.org/cancers/esophageal-cancer/signs-and-symptoms/
  11. Countries With the Highest Rates of Esophageal Cancer. World Atlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-highest-rates-of-oesophageal-cancer.html
  12. Drinking very hot tea linked with risk of 1 type of oesophageal cancer. National Health Service. https://www.nhs.uk/news/cancer/drinking-very-hot-tea-linked-risk-1-type-oesophageal-cancer/
  13. Headlines saying ‘hot tea causes oesophageal cancer’ miss crucial details. Cancer Research UK blog. https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2019/03/20/headlines-saying-hot-tea-causes-oesophageal-cancer-miss-crucial-details/
  14. Zhu HC, Yang X, Xu LP, et al. Meat consumption is associated with esophageal cancer risk in a meat- and cancer-histological-type dependent manner. Digestive Diseases and Sciences. 2014 Mar;59(3):664-73. doi: 10.1007/s10620-013-2928-y
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Last Review Date: 2020 Mar 31
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