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At Northwest Specialty Hospital (NWSH), our primary focus is the health and well-being of our patients. That mission can encompass not just treating ailments and injuries but also helping our patients avoid health problems both short- and long-term. To assist this effort, we educate our patients on the importance of preventive care and continuously paying attention to their health so that important markers are not overlooked or ignored.

We like to bring attention to various diseases or conditions that impact our North Idaho community, and highlighting health awareness months is one way. April has been designated as Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month, and it is worth taking a little time to learn about what it is and what the risk factors and symptoms are. 


Facts About Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is not as common as many other forms of cancer; it accounts for about 1% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. Men are roughly four times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than women. There are two broad types of esophageal cancer: adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. The types are distinguished by the type of cell that becomes cancerous.

Esophageal cancer originates in the tissues lining the esophagus, the muscular tube responsible for transporting food from the throat to the stomach. In its early stages, people will not experience any symptoms, so many cases are not diagnosed until the cancer has progressed. Once manifested, symptoms include difficulty swallowing, pain in the throat or back, vomiting blood, heartburn, chronic cough, and unintended weight loss. 

Although it is difficult to pinpoint a specific cause of this cancer developing in a given case, significant risk factors include tobacco use and alcohol consumption; both factors together raise the risk much higher than one alone. Other contributing factors include age – most cases develop in people over 55 years, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and having various health issues, including GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or other chronic reflux conditions, Barrett’s esophagus, or achalasia.

In recent years, researchers believe that chronic digestive issues such as heartburn, regurgitation, and acid reflux can significantly increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer. If you have any of these conditions or experience trouble swallowing, NWSH strongly suggests you schedule an appointment with our digestive surgery clinic for an examination or an endoscopy. An evaluation by one of our digestive specialists can aid in early detection of the condition, and early treatment of your symptoms can decrease the likelihood that you will develop esophageal cancer.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing esophageal cancer may involve a battery of tests, including a barium swallow, CT scans, esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD), esophageal endoscopic ultrasound, or a biopsy. Staging the cancer is crucial for determining treatment strategies, considering factors like tumor size, lymph node involvement, and metastasis.

Treatment modalities vary based on cancer stage and grade. Early-stage cancers may be treated with surgery, such as having an esophagectomy, which removes part of the esophagus and reconstructs it with other body tissue. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies are often recommended for advanced cases. Endoscopic procedures like endoscopic submucosal dissection (ESD) and photodynamic therapy (PDT) offer minimally invasive options for select patients. Immunotherapy utilizing immune checkpoint inhibitors represents a promising frontier in esophageal cancer treatment.

Monitoring Your Health

As with most cancers, detection and treatment at the earlier stages generally lead to better outcomes. Unfortunately, many cases of esophageal cancer go undetected until their later stages, as symptoms may not appear for some time.

Not all risk factors for esophageal cancer are controllable. However, people can modify their lifestyles by reducing alcohol consumption, quitting tobacco use, and losing excess weight, all of which can mitigate their risk of developing esophageal cancer. Individuals with predisposing factors like Barrett’s esophagus may opt for regular screenings, which can be crucial for early detection and intervention.

The prognosis for patients with esophageal cancer hinges on various factors, including the cancer stage at which treatment is started, the type of cancer, and the patient’s response to treatment. For all cases, the five-year survival rate is about 22%. The five-year survival rate is about 50% when detected before the cancer has spread. This disparity highlights the importance of awareness and proactive healthcare practices. However, it should also be noted that these rates are based on historical data; advancements in medical care and treatment are constantly being made that may improve patient outcomes.


These facts about esophageal cancer underscore the importance of vigilance and proactive healthcare measures for those at risk. By understanding its symptoms, risk factors, and available treatments, individuals can empower themselves to advocate for their health effectively. Contact us to schedule an appointment with Northwest Institute for Digestive Surgery. Your health is our top priority.

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