Esophageal Cancer Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Patient Information [NCI]
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Esophageal Cancer Screening
What is screening?
Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.
Scientists are trying to better understand which people are more likely to get certain types of cancer. They also study the things we do and the things around us to see if they cause cancer. This information helps doctors recommend who should be screened for cancer, which screening tests should be used, and how often the tests should be done.
It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when you have no cancer symptoms.
If a screening test result is abnormal, you may need to have more tests done to find out if you have cancer. These are called diagnostic tests.
General Information About Esophageal Cancer
Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the esophagus.
The esophagus is the hollow, muscular tube that moves food and liquid from the throat to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including mucous membrane, muscle, and connective tissue. Esophageal cancer starts in the inside lining of the esophagus and spreads outward through the other layers as it grows.
The stomach and esophagus are part of the upper digestive system.
The two most common types of esophageal cancer are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancerous):
- Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that begins in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the esophagus. This cancer is most often found in the upper and middle part of the esophagus but can occur anywhere along the esophagus. This is also called epidermoid carcinoma.
- Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in glandular (secretory) cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the esophagus produce and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas usually form in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach.
See the following PDQ summaries for more information about esophageal cancer:
- Esophageal Cancer Prevention
- Esophageal Cancer Treatment
Esophageal cancer is found more often in men.
Men are about three times more likely than women to have esophageal cancer. There are more new cases of esophageal adenocarcinoma each year and fewer new cases of squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus is found more often in blacks than in whites. The chance of developing esophageal cancer increases with age.
Smoking, heavy alcohol use, and Barrett esophagus can affect the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Anything that increases the chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor.
Risk factors for squamous cell esophageal cancer include the following:
- Using tobacco.
- Drinking a lot of alcohol.
- Being malnourished (lacking nutrients and/or calories).
- Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).
- Having tylosis.
- Having achalasia.
- Having swallowed lye (a chemical found in some cleaning fluids).
- Drinking very hot liquids on a regular basis.
Risk factors for esophageal adenocarcinoma include the following:
- Having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Having Barrett esophagus.
- Having a history of using drugs that relax the lower esophageal sphincter (the ring of muscle that opens and closes the opening between the esophagus and the stomach).
- Being overweight.
Esophageal Cancer Screening
Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer.
Some screening tests are used because they have been shown to be helpful both in finding cancers early and in decreasing the chance of dying from these cancers. Other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people; however, it has not been proven in clinical trials that use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.
Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. Cancer screening trials also are meant to show whether early detection (finding cancer before it causes symptoms) decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. For some types of cancer, the chance of recovery is better if the disease is found and treated at an early stage.
There is no standard or routine screening test for esophageal cancer.
Screening for esophageal cancer is under study with screening clinical trials taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Tests that may detect (find) esophageal cancer are being studied:
A procedure to look inside the esophagus to check for abnormal areas. An esophagoscope is inserted through the mouth or nose and down the throat into the esophagus. An esophagoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
Esophagoscopy. A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus to look for abnormal areas.
The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. Taking biopsy samples from several different areas in the lining of the lower part of the esophagus may detect early Barrett esophagus. This procedure may be used for patients who have risk factors for Barrett esophagus.
A procedure in which cells are brushed from the lining of the esophagus and viewed under a microscope to see if they are abnormal. This may be done during an esophagoscopy.
A procedure in which cells are collected from the lining of the esophagus using a deflated balloon that is swallowed by the patient. The balloon is then inflated and pulled out of the esophagus. Esophageal cells on the balloon are viewed under a microscope to see if they are abnormal.
A procedure in which a dye is sprayed onto the lining of the esophagus during esophagoscopy. Increased staining of certain areas of the lining may be a sign of early Barrett esophagus.
A procedure that uses a special light to view tissue in the lining of the esophagus. The light probe is passed through an endoscope and shines on the lining of the esophagus. The light given off by the cells lining the esophagus is then measured. Malignant tissue gives off less light than normal tissue.
Risks of Esophageal Cancer Screening
Screening tests have risks.
Decisions about screening tests can be difficult. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.
The risks of esophageal cancer screening tests include the following:
Finding esophageal cancer may not improve health or help a person live longer.
Screening may not improve your health or help you live longer if you have advanced esophageal cancer or if it has already spread to other places in your body.
Some cancers never cause symptoms or become life-threatening, but if found by a screening test, the cancer may be treated. It is not known if treatment of these cancers will help you live longer than if no treatment were given, and treatments for cancer may have serious side effects.
False-negative test results can occur.
Screening test results may appear to be normal even though esophageal cancer is present. A person who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care even if there are symptoms.
False-positive test results can occur.
Screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. A false-positive test result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't) can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests (such as biopsy), which also have risks.
Side effects may be caused by the test itself.
There are rare but serious side effects that may occur with esophagoscopy and biopsy. These include the following:
- A small hole (puncture) in the esophagus.
- Problems with breathing.
- Heart attack.
- Passage of food, water, stomach acid, or vomit into the airway.
- Severe bleeding that may need to be treated in a hospital.
Changes to This Summary (05 / 19 / 2010)
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
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Last Revised: 2010-05-19
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