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Esophageal Cancer

What is esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer starts in the cells that line the esophagus.

What increases my risk for esophageal cancer?

  • Alcohol use

  • Smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco

  • Barrett esophagus

  • High-fat foods such as in fried foods, chips, and some pork or beef dishes

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (heartburn)

What are the signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer?

You may not have any signs and symptoms at first. You may develop more than one of the following over time:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Chest or stomach pain or discomfort

  • Bloody bowel movements or diarrhea

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss without trying

How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?

  • A barium swallow is an x-ray of your esophagus and stomach. You will drink a white chalky liquid called barium to help your esophagus show up better on an x-ray.

  • A CT or MRI may show cancer and if it has spread. You may be given contrast liquid to help the cancer show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • Endoscopy is used to examine the lining of your esophagus, stomach, and part of your small intestine. Your healthcare provider uses a small tube with a camera on the end.

  • A biopsy may be used to take a sample of tissue from your esophagus to be tested for cancer.

How is esophageal cancer treated?

  • Surgery may be needed to remove part of your esophagus or lymph nodes. This may help stop the cancer from spreading.

  • Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may also be used to shrink the tumor or lymph nodes before surgery. Once the tumor is smaller, surgery can be done to remove the cancer.

  • Radiation therapy is used to kill cancer cells with x-rays or gamma rays. Radiation may be given after surgery to kill cancer cells that were not removed. It may be given alone or with chemotherapy.

What can I do to manage my esophageal cancer?

  • Do not smoke. Smoking increases your risk for new or returning cancer. Smoking can also delay healing after treatment. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help quitting.

  • Limit or do not drink alcohol as directed. Men should limit alcohol to 2 drinks per day. Women should limit alcohol to 1 drink per day. A drink of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.

  • Eat healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Take small bites, and chew your food well before you swallow . Be especially careful when you eat meat, fruits, and vegetables . You may need to change what you eat during treatment. A nutritionist may help to plan the best meals and snacks for you.

  • Drink liquids as directed. If you have nausea or diarrhea from cancer treatment, extra liquids may help decrease your risk for dehydration. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you.

  • Exercise as directed. Exercise may help increase your energy level and appetite. Ask your healthcare provider how much exercise you need and which exercises are best for you.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

  • You suddenly feel lightheaded and short of breath.

  • You have chest pain when you take a deep breath or cough.

  • You cough up blood.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.

  • You vomit multiple times and cannot keep food or liquids down.

  • You feel you cannot cope with your illness.

  • You are bleeding from your mouth or nose.

  • You have pain that does not decrease or go away after you take your pain medicine.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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