When you consider your cancer risk, esophageal cancer may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet according to the American Institute of Cancer Research, this particular form of cancer claims the lives of at least 16,000 Americans each year. Sadly, the five year survival rate for esophageal cancer is just 20 percent, in part due to a lack of regular screening measures and later onset symptoms. However, the prognosis can vary greatly depending on when you are diagnosed, and experts say the sooner you bring symptoms to your doctor’s attention, the better your chances of recovery. Read on to learn the number one most common symptom of esophageal cancer, and how it may affect you.
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Having frequent difficulty swallowing, a condition known as dysphagia, is the single most common symptom of esophageal cancer, says the American Cancer Society (ACS). “Occasional difficulty swallowing, such as when you eat too fast or don’t chew your food well enough, usually isn’t cause for concern,” explains the Mayo Clinic. “But persistent dysphagia can be a serious medical condition requiring treatment.”
Those with dysphagia may feel like food is stuck in their throat or chest, and swallowing can become difficult or impossible. Some patients find dysphagia painful, while others find it uncomfortable, but do not experience pain in the throat.
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The American Cancer Society points out that in addition to the risks associated with esophageal cancer itself, those with dysphagia are at heightened risk of a serious choking incident. This risk “gets worse over time as the cancer grows and the opening inside the esophagus gets smaller,” their site explains.
Ultimately this may have a significant effect on one’s diet, making it crucial for those with esophageal cancer to carefully monitor their nutrition. “When swallowing becomes harder, people often change their diet and eating habits without realizing it. They take smaller bites and chew their food more carefully and slowly,” explains ACS. “As the cancer grows larger, the problem can get worse. People then might start eating softer foods that can pass through the esophagus more easily. They might avoid bread and meat, since these foods typically get stuck. The swallowing problem may even get bad enough that some people stop eating solid food completely and switch to a liquid diet. If the cancer keeps growing, at some point even liquids might be hard to swallow,” their experts write.
In addition to having trouble swallowing, you may notice a range of other symptoms associated with esophageal cancer. These can include chest pain, weight loss, chronic cough, vomiting, or a hoarse voice. If cancer has spread to the bones, you may notice pain there, and in severe or advanced cases of esophageal cancer, you may experience bleeding in the esophagus.
However, ACS notes that having one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have esophageal cancer. “In fact, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions,” their experts say.
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Though the odds are in your favor that the cause of your symptoms is something other than cancer, it’s still extremely important to tell your doctor what you’re experiencing in order to rule it out. That’s because, according to The National Cancer Institute, there is currently no routine screening test for esophageal cancer. “Screening tests for esophageal cancer are being studied in clinical trials,” their experts note. ACS adds that “it’s rare for people without symptoms to be diagnosed with this cancer.”
Speak with your doctor today if you notice prolonged trouble swallowing—especially if any additional symptoms are present.
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