Cancer InDepth: Esophageal Cancer
Esophageal cancer is a malignant growth of tissues that line the inner surface of the esophagus.The esophagus is the tube that connects your throat with your stomach. It spans the length of your chest, between your lungs, behind your heart, and is in close proximity to your back bone. The esophagus is a complex, 4-layered muscular organ. It sends food into your stomach with a series of rhythmic contractions called peristalsis.
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Who Is AffectedEsophageal cancer is 3-4 times more common in men than in women. It is also more common in countries outside the United States.Squamous cell carcinoma—More common in African Americans, in people aged 60 years and older, and outside the United States. Adenocarcinoma—More common in Caucasians, people aged 50 years and older, and in the United States.
Causes and ComplicationsThere are many risk factors for esophageal cancer that appear to be causative. Many are ingested agents that do damage directly to the esophagus, like excess alcohol, nitrates, toxins in pickled vegetables, and very hot beverages. Other irritants that increase the risk of esophageal cancer are radiation, tobacco, smoked opiates, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Human papillomavirus is a sexually transmitted infection. Infection with certain types of HPV is associated with esophageal cancer. Ionizing radiation, as experienced by survivors of the atomic bomb, has been associated with a higher rate of esophageal cancer. Obesity is also associated with a higher risk. Additionally, the condition may run in families. Plummer-Vinson syndrome (a rare disorder characterized by anemia due to a low iron level and low levels of certain nutrients) has been associated with a higher risk for esophageal cancer in women residing in Sweden. Celiac disease, a disorder characterized by malabsorption, has also been linked to this form of cancer. Esophageal cancer restricts and ultimately prevents swallowing, leading to weight loss, malnutrition, and starvation. Food and liquids not swallowed can be diverted into the lungs, causing choking, aspiration, and pneumonia. Inability to swallow liquids can lead to death by dehydration. Occasionally, the cancer erodes into the breathing tubes creating a tracheo-esophageal fistula, through which food passes directly into the lungs. Metastases from esophageal cancer can lodge anywhere in the body, most frequently ending up in the liver, lungs, brain, and bones. About 80% of patients with this disease die within 5 years of diagnosis.
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