According to the American Cancer Society, over 18,000 people are diagnosed with esophageal cancer each year. While it's not a common cancer here in the United States, accounting for only about 1% of all cancer diagnoses, it is deadly: Over 15,000 people die of the illness on an annual basis. The good news is that this type of cancer can sometimes be prevented. Read on to find out what causes esophageal cancer and to learn some suggestions for avoiding this deadly disease.
Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD)
If you suffer from frequent heartburn, then you might have gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD. This condition occasionally progresses to a condition called Barrett's esophagus, which is when the cells of the esophagus begin to be replaced by cells that normally line the stomach. When this happens, your risk of esophageal cancer rises.
One important way that you can prevent GERD from eventually leading to cancer is to see your doctor if you cannot get your heartburn under control with over-the-counter medications or lifestyle changes. These lifestyle changes include losing weight if you are overweight, avoiding eating heavy or greasy foods (particularly at night), and reducing your overall stress levels.
If you smoke or drink alcohol, your chances of developing esophageal cancer go up. The smoking can take the form of cigarettes, cigars or pipes. Chewing tobacco also affects the esophagus. While one drink per day can improve your heart health, indulging in alcohol excessively can lead to esophageal cancer as well as other health problems. Combining smoking with heavy alcohol consumption raises your risk even more.
The good news is that if you cut back on your alcohol consumption and quit smoking, your cancer risk slowly drops. In this case, a lifestyle change could make a big difference in your overall cancer risk.
Certain foods eaten often might cause changes in the cells of the esophagus, which could lead to cancer. Processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon and processed deli meats, can raise your risk if eaten frequently. So can drinking very hot liquids on a regular basis. This can damage the cells of the esophagus and lead to dangerous changes.
To reduce your risk, replace the processed meats in your diet with other sources of protein. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can lower your risk of developing esophageal cancer, as well as other types of cancer.
Other Risk Factors
There are other risk factors for esophageal cancer; some you can change, and others you can't. For example, you are more likely to develop this type of cancer if you are over 55 years of age. Also, having certain other conditions, such as achalasia, tylosis, or other types of cancer, can make you more likely to develop esophageal cancer.
Risk factors that you might be able to change include obesity and workplace exposures to certain chemicals. Changing your diet, exercising regularly and seeing your doctor for help with weight loss can help you reduce an obesity-related risk. If you are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals at work, talking to your supervisor about ways to reduce your risks might help. So can changing jobs, if you think that you are in danger.
If you do begin to exhibit the signs of esophageal cancer, particularly if you believe that you are at high risk of developing the condition, it's important to make an appointment with your doctor or health clinic. These symptoms include trouble swallowing, chest pain, chronic cough, hoarseness, persistent hiccups, black stools (caused by esophageal bleeding) or unexpected weight loss.
Prompt cancer care by an oncology specialist can catch esophageal cancer in its early stages and provide your best chance at a full recovery. Do what you can to reduce your risks, and bring any troubling symptoms to the attention of your physician.