The oesophagus is another name for the food pipe, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Oesophageal cancer can arise anywhere along the food pipe. In the UK it is rather uncommon. There are two types of oesophageal cancer: adenocarcinoma Iis the most common, arising from within the mucous glands towards the bottom of the tube, and squamous cell carcinoma, which arises from the lining of the oesophagus in the top and middle part of the tube. The sooner the cancer is found, the better the chance of cure of the disease. It’s tough to treat, and less than half will survive to a year or more after diagnosis. Only 1 in every 10 will survive to 10 years.
In the early stages, there are usually no symptoms of oesophageal cancer. Development of symptoms usually relate to a tumour part-blocking the pipe, making it more difficult to swallow (dysphagia). This may feel like food gets stuck in the throat and as it goes down – solid food is the most difficult to start, with increasing obstruction, liquids may also be difficult to swallow easily. Vomiting after eating or vomiting blood, pain when swallowing or persistent cough, can also be some of the symptoms. Difficulties with eating can affect appetite and cause weight loss. Other symptoms include a hoarse voice or worsening acid reflux.
Your doctor can refer you for a test to look inside your oesophagus called an endoscopy. During the procedure, a long thin tube, the size of a pen, with a camera on the end is passed from your mouth down to your food pipe. This gives the doctor operating it a clear view of any obstruction or disrupted tissue. You will be given some local anaesthetic and sedative to make you feel more at ease, but you will be awake throughout. It may be uncomfortable but it should not painful. A sample of cells called a biopsy may be taken and sent off for further examination.
Depending on your own personal risk factors, you should aim to lose weight, stop smoking and drink alcohol only in moderation, if these apply to you. Avoid piping hot food and drink, as they can cause long term damage to your oesophagus. It’s worth bearing in mind that 60% of oesophageal cancers are preventable, so it’s really important to take control of any factors that you can do, like lifestyle factors.