Oesophageal cancer symptoms: what they are and cancer’s risk factors and survival rate explained

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The signs of oesophageal cancer are not always obvious and prognosis depends on what stage it is diagnosed at

Around 8,000 people every year across the UK are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer - however many have never heard of it, and often the symptoms can be mistaken for something else.

Along with liver, pancreatic, stomach, brain and lung it is among the six least survivable cancers.

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Often the cancer can be at an advanced stage before it is diagnosed.

February is Oesophageal cancer awareness month.February is Oesophageal cancer awareness month.
February is Oesophageal cancer awareness month. | Staff/Adobe

While treatment options such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and - for some people if the cancer is found early enough - surgery are available, the cancer can be difficult to treat.

Former Rangers, Manchester United and Scotland goalkeeper Andy Goram has revealed he has been given six months to live after being diagnosed with Level 4 oesophageal cancer. It has spread to his liver, right lung, three vertebrae and ribs.

Goram, who is affectionately known by Rangers fans as ‘The Goalie’ and won 43 caps for Scotland, first felt ill around seven weeks ago, when he was struggling to eat and drink.

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But what are the warning signs to look out for and what are the cancer’s risk factors? Here’s what you need to know.

What is oesophageal cancer?

It is a cancer that’s found anywhere in the oesophagus, also known as the gullet or food pipe. It connects your mouth to your stomach.

The cancer narrows the oesophagus and causes problems with swallowing.

At first solid food tends to lodge or stick in the oesophagus, and this is followed by issues with swallowing liquids.

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The cancerous cells may spread outside the oesophagus for example to lymph nodes and blood vessels in the chest and abdomen.

Cancer cells may also be carried in the blood stream to form secondary tumours, in the liver or elsewhere.

Information Manager at Guts UK Charity, Julie Thompson said: “Most patients seek medical attention because of problems swallowing.

“Going to the doctor early when symptoms begin is important, to increase the chances of early diagnosis and effective treatment.”

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What are the signs to look out for?

Anyone experiencing symptoms should contact their doctor, among the signs to look out for are:

  • heartburn for 3 weeks or longer
  • food getting stuck when you swallow
  • persistent indigestion
  • food coming back up soon after swallowing
  • a cough that is not getting better
  • a hoarse voice
  • loss of appetite or losing weight without trying to
  • feeling tired or having no energy
  • pain in your throat or the middle of your chest, especially when swallowing

After visiting a GP a referral would be made for investigative tests such as a barium swallow, where a liquid containing barium is swallowed , with the patient then receiving an X-ray.

This would allow any mass on the oesophagus to show up.

Another test used is an endoscope, a thin flexible tube with a camera which is used to detect any problems.

What is the survival rate?

According to information published on the Cancer Research UK site there are no UK-wide survival figures by stage. However, statistics on the site for England state almost 55 out of 100 people (almost 55%) with stage 1 of the cancer will survive for 5 years or more after they’re diagnosed. For those with stage 2 this decreases to 30%, while for stage 3 it is 15%.

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There are no survival statistics for stage 4 as many people don’t survive for long after their diagnosis. However, figures from the Office of National Statistics relating to one-year survival rates for stage 4 are 20%.

What causes it?

Among the risk factors cited by Guts UK Charity include smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, particularly spirits.

Acid reflux and the time over which the oesophagus has been exposed to this acid, are risk factors.

Having an unhealthy body weight or having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more is a cause in 1 in 4 oesophageal cancers.

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The NHS says those who may be more likely to develop it are:

  • Those over the age of 75, it’s not very common in people under 45
  • Men
  • People with certain medical conditions, such as long-term, severe acid reflux or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, or a condition called Barrett’s Oesophagus

What is Barretts Oesophagus?

It is a medical condition where some of the cells in the oesophagus grow abnormally.

If you have Barrett’s oesophagus you are slightly more likely to get oesophageal cancer. It is sometimes called a pre-cancerous condition.

Barrett’s Oesophagus often doesn’t  have any symptoms, however those affected by it might have signs of indigestion and heartburn.

Where can those affected get support and information?

A message from the editor:

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