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What is esophageal cancer? The esophagus is the organ that functions as a tube that allows food and liquids to travel from your mouth to your stomach in your abdomen. Esophagus cancer, also called esophageal cancer, is the term used for cancers that form there.
Esophageal cancers account for about 1% of all cancers in the United States. Men are 4 times more likely to get the disease than women. Research shows that men’s higher participation in risk factors such as tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption may help explain this gender difference.
The most common symptom of esophageal cancer occurs when a tumor grows big enough to make it hard for food to pass through. Patients notice that it feels like food gets stuck low in their chest, and the symptoms can often get worse with time and cause people to begin to lose weight. Liquids tend to be easier to swallow than solid food, which patients sometimes feel like they have to regurgitate because the food will not pass.
How does esophageal cancer develop? In general, cancer develops after the genetic material in cells changes abnormally and the cells begin growing out of control. When there are enough of these abnormal cells, they can form a tumor.
Esophageal cancer often is a result of chronic irritation of the esophagus. This may be triggered by chronic gastroesophageal reflux diseases (GERD), by a precancerous condition known as Barrett’s esophagus, by drinking alcohol, by smoking, or by prior radiation treatment to the chest or upper abdomen. Patients with esophageal cancer associated with reflux diseae often will not have a history of significant heartburn symptoms.
How does esophageal cancer spread? Esophageal cancer generally starts in the layer that is the inner lining of the esophagus (also called the mucosa), and then spreads outward, from the mucosa to the other 3 layers of the esophagus wall. Starting from the inside, those other layers are:
Submucosa: Connective tissue located next to the mucosa that contains nerves, blood vessels, and glands that produce mucous
Muscularis propria: A muscle layer that pushes food down the esophagus.
Adventitia: Connective tissue that makes up the outer layer of the esophagus
When the cancer is traveling through the layers in the wall of the esophagus, tumor cells can spread to lymph nodes that live in the area close to the esophagus. Cancer cells can also spread through both the bloodstream and the lymphatic system to travel to other organs in the body, most commonly the liver, lung, and bone.
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