The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. It lies behind the windpipe (trachea) and in front of the spine and in adults is about 10-13 inches long. At its smallest point, it is a little less than one inch wide. It carries food and liquids to the stomach.
The wall of the esophagus has several layers. Cancer of the esophagus starts in the inner layer and grows outward into deeper layers.
In the lower part of the esophagus that connects to the stomach, a sphincter muscle opens to allow food to enter the stomach. This muscle also closes to keep stomach acid and juices from backing up into the esophagus. When stomach juices escape into the esophagus, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or just reflux. In many cases, reflux can cause symptoms such as heartburn or a burning feeling spreading out from the middle of the chest. But sometimes, reflux can happen without any symptoms at all.
Long-term reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus can lead to problems. It can change the cells in the lower end of the esophagus. They become more like the cells that line the stomach. When these cells change, the person has a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. These altered cells can change into cancer, so the person has a much higher risk of cancer of the esophagus and should be closely watched by a doctor. Still, most people with Barrett’s esophagus do not go on to get cancer of the esophagus.
Can cancer of the esophagus be
Not all cases of esophageal cancer can be prevented, but the risk of getting this disease can be greatly reduced by not using tobacco and alcohol. Diet is also important. Eating many fruits and vegetables may offer some protection. Staying active and keeping a healthy weight may also help.
Some studies have found that the risk can be lowered in people who take aspirin or other drugs such as ibuprofen (NSAIDs) that reduce inflammation. But using these drugs every day can lead to problems like kidney damage and bleeding in the stomach. For this reason, most doctors do not advise the use of NSAIDs to prevent cancer. If you are thinking of using one of these regularly, you first should talk to your doctor about the pros and cons.
Some studies have also found a lower risk of esophageal cancer in patients with Barrett’s esophagus who take a type of drug called statins. Statins are used to treat high cholesterol. These are drugs like atorvastatin (Lipitor®) and rosuvastatin (Crestor®). While taking one of these drugs to lower cholesterol may also help some patients lower esophageal cancer risk, doctors don’t advise taking them to prevent cancer. These drugs can have serious side effects.
Doctors recommend that people with Barrett’s esophagus have certain tests done to look for cell changes that may be a sign of cancer. Treating reflux may help to prevent Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer. If you have chronic heartburn (or reflux), you should talk to your health care team about it. Treatment with drugs or even surgery can improve symptoms and may prevent future problems.
This information is provided by the American Cancer Society. If you need more information, please call your physician or the Florida Department of Health in Madison at 850-973-5000 or the Florida Department of Health in Jefferson at (850) 342-0170.