What is cancer?
Cancer is a disease where abnormal cells in the body begin to grow, divide and reproduce in an uncontrollable way. These abnormal cells then invade and destroy healthy tissue, including organs.
What is oesophageal cancer?
The pipe down which food is carried from your mouth to your stomach is called your oesophagus. Oesophageal cancer is where cancerous cells develop in your oesophagus, (in its lining or mucus-forming glands), forming a cancerous tumour.
Although not a common form of cancer in the UK, oesophagus cancer is on the increase.
Symptoms of oesophageal cancer
Symptoms of oesophageal cancer include:
Difficulty and pain when swallowing
A general feeling of discomfort and pain in and around your throat
Skeletal pain around the shoulder blades
Breastbone pain (and sometimes rib pain)
Nausea and vomiting
Note: Some people with oesophageal cancer may also cough up blood.
Causes of oesophageal cancer include:
Excessive alcohol consumption
As part of the ageing process
Environmental factors (e.g., exposure to dangerous chemicals and pollutants)
GORD (acid reflux from the stomach)
About GORD: GORD stands for gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (also known as acid reflux). It is an unpleasant burning feeling in the chest which rises to the throat. This occurs when stomach acid leaks back up into the oesophagus.
When the ring of muscle that sits between your oesophagus and your stomach weakens over time and fails to function as it should then GORD can occur. Acid seeps through the ring up into the throat in a sort of ‘backwards motion’, and can feel uncomfortable.
Although GORD can be a cause of oesophageal cancer, this is rare.
A diagnosis of oesophageal cancer can be based upon an individual’s symptoms, physical examination results and screening test results. Also, if you suffer an injury of some kind, cancer can be detected through abnormalities brought to light through an X-ray.
If you are suffering from the aforementioned symptoms, arrange an appointment with your GP immediately. They will take your medical history, ask you some questions about your symptoms, and then carry out a short physical examination. Primarily, your GP will be looking for a lump in your abdomen (this can indicate that a cancerous tumour has formed).
You may then be referred to a cancer specialist at your local (or nearest) hospital. There, a biopsy (the surgical removal of a small sample of body tissue) will be made. Prior to this, you will also have an endoscopy. This is where a thin telescopic tube is passed down your throat for exploratory examination – images of your oesophagus from the tiny camera at the tip of the endoscope are fed back to a monitor screen (for analysis).
If based upon the result of these tests a confirmed diagnosis of oesophageal cancer is made, an appropriate treatment will then be recommended to you.
Effect on your life
Being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer can be an extremely traumatic experience. If possible, it is advisable to take someone who is emotionally strong with you to your consultations, to act as a support. Cancer consultants and nurse specialists are attuned to responding to your questions and will understand your needs.
Treatments for oesophageal cancer include chemotherapy (a general term for treatments that use chemical agents/drugs that kill cancer cells), radiotherapy (high-energy radiation treatment where beams of radiation are concentrated on the cancerous tumour) and surgery (an operation to remove the cancerous tumour).
Often, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used as a combined treatment.
Advice & Support
Oesophageal Patients Association
Tel. 0121 704 9860
Cancer Research UK
Tel: 020 7121 6699, 020 7242 0200
Macmillan Cancer Support
Tel: 0808 800 1234 (free phone)
Tel: 020 7739 2280 (standard rate)
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