What is esophageal cancer and what causes it?

Dr. Ivana Dzeletovic is a gastroenterologist specializing in endoscopy at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert.

Question: What is esophageal cancer and what causes it?

Answer: Esophageal cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the esophagus, which is a long, hollow muscular tube that connects your throat to your stomach. This tube enables the food you eat to be carried into your stomach for digestion. Cancer of the esophagus can develop anywhere along the entire length of the esophagus. It starts in the cells in the inside lining and spreads outward as it grows. The disease affects older people and more men than women. It is a relatively rare form of cancer in the U.S., but in Asia and parts of Africa it is more common.

The exact cause of esophageal cancer is unknown, but research has shown the cancer develops as a result of a problem with the cells of the esophagus. These problems occur when there are errors, or mutations, in the DNA of the cells.

It is believed that the cells of the esophagus mutate when they are inflamed or irritated regularly over a long period of time. Numerous conditions or lifestyle choices can cause chronic inflammation of the esophagus, including alcohol consumption; acid or bile reflux; being overweight; smoking; eating too few fruits and vegetables; having a condition called achalasia (the muscle separating esophagus from the stomach does not relax); or having Barrett's esophagus, where precancerous cells have been identified in the esophagus.

Most people will not experience any symptoms in the early stages of esophageal cancer. However, in later stages, a person will likely have pain or difficulty when swallowing and unintentional weight loss. Some people might also experience pressure or pain in the chest, worsening indigestion, coughing or a hoarse voice. Always consult with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms or other persistent changes in your health that concern you.