Know the warning signs of oesophageal cancer
Know the Risks
The oesophagus (/e-SOF-a-gus/), also known as the gullet, is the connective tube between the throat and stomach.
All food and liquids we swallow are pushed to the stomach by the contraction of the oesophageal muscles.
Early Warning Symptoms
Oesophageal Cancer is a treatable condition if caught early enough. The danger is that it often starts with everyday digestive complaints that can be passed off as temporary inconveniences.
If one or more of these symptoms persist contact your GP.
- Frequent and persistent hiccups
- Constant burping/belching/coughing
- Acid indigestion/heartburn/reflux
- Difficulty swallowing (solids/meats at first, then softer foods/liquids)
- Weight loss
- Unexplained tiredness
- Discomfort in the throat or back
- Discomfort between the breast bone and shoulder
- A lump in the neck or hoarseness in the voice (rare).
Who is at Risk?
Any adult is at risk. Oesophageal cancer was once considered a condition that was unique to male seniors, however this is no longer the case.
The primary risk factors are:
- Age: Oesophageal cancer risks do increase with age. It is most prevalent among people who are 60 years and more. However, it can affect people as young as 20-35.
- Gender: Oesophageal cancer is not gender exclusive but it does affect three times more men than women.
- Smoking: Cigarettes and other tobacco products contribute significantly to the risk of developing oesophageal cancer.
- Alcohol: Long-term heavy drinkers face increased oesophageal cancer risks.
- Food: A diet lacking in fruit and vegetables, Vitamin A, C and riboflavin can increase oesophageal cancer risk. Frequent drinking of very hot liquids should be avoided.
- Obesity: Obesity is a risk factor for some types of oesophageal cancer.
How can I protect myself?
Having a risk factor, or even several, does not necessarily mean that you will contract oesophageal cancer. Many people with risk factors never develop oesophageal cancer; others are affected by the illness despite not being in any at-risk category. However, we strongly recommend you control and minimise your level of risk by taking the following precautions:
- Manage your weight: Check with your doctor to find out what a healthy weight goal is for you and use diet and exercise to aim for it.
- Stop over-relying on antacids: It is easy to pass off acid indigestion and heartburn as short-term, run-of-the-mill irritations that can be eased with supermarket medicines. If you experience reflux over a prolonged period, notify your GP.
- Eat lighter foods: Getting your five-a-day servings of fruit and vegetables can be crucial in keeping oesophageal cancer at bay. Try not to make red and processed meats form too great a part of your daily meals. Avoid spicy and fatty foods if you are prone to heartburn.
- Drink less: Consume alcohol in moderation and, especially cut back on spirits.
- No smoking: If you are a smoker make it your mission to quit cigarettes.
- Get screened: Screening has been shown to be beneficial for those at high risk, particularly for people who are older, obese, heavy drinkers/smokers, or have a history of acid reflux. Screening can detect oesophageal cancer before symptoms are present and the earlier cancer is identified, the easier it is to treat.
What is oesophageal cancer?
Oesophageal cancer is caused when the lining of the oesophagus experiences abnormal cell growth. There are two types of abnormal cell growth:
Squamous cell cancer
The lining of a healthy oesophagus consists of squamous or flat cells similar to the cells in the skin. Abnormal growth in these cells causes a squamous cell cancer that can affect the oesophagus along its entire length.
Persistent acid-reflux can cause cells in the oesophageal lining to experience negative change and start resembling cells in the stomach lining. This transformed oesophagus is known as Barrett’s Oesophagus and is highly at risk of developing cancerous growths, leading to a cancer called an adeno-carcinoma.