Persistent coughing, prolonged hoarseness, difficulty swallowing or unintended weight loss, each of these symptoms may be easily explained and treated. Or they may signal a more serious problem; all are common symptoms of esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer develops in the lining of the esophagus, a muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Approximately 8-10 inches long, the esophagus helps transport food from the mouth to the stomach for digestion. It keeps food from traveling down the windpipe, and when it reaches the stomach, it prevents acid and stomach contents from traveling backwards.

Although the disease is considered rare, physicians are seeing an increase in the number of young men being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, according to Kenneth Meredith, MD, FACS, a UW Health surgeon with a special interest in treating gastrointestinal malignancies.

According to Meredith, a surgical oncologist with UW Carbone Cancer Center in Madison, WI, the disease is often linked to lifestyle choices. Esophageal cancer patients frequently have a history of smoking or excess alcohol consumption. Alcohol combined with tobacco use increases the risk of esophageal cancer far more than either drinking or smoking alone. People who have been diagnosed with Barrett’s Esophagus, a pre-cancer condition related to prolonged acid reflux, are at particularly high risk.

The most effective way to detect esophageal cancer is to recognize the symptoms and see your health care professional. The warning signs are: difficult or painful swallowing, unintended weight loss, chest pain, heartburn/indigestion, persistent coughing or prolonged hoarseness, and human papillomavirus (HPV).

UW Carbonne Cancer Center Health Newsletter, April 2014