By Patricia Raymond, Michelle Beaver

The big C is a terrifying proposition. The odds of developing esophageal cancer from acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are quite slim, but your odds of surviving a battle with it are slim as well. Each year, around 18,000 people will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and around 15,000 people will die from it.

Types of esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer usually forms initially in the tissue lining your esophagus. It can have several causes, but long-term acid reflux or GER) puts you at a greater risk of developing the disease. There are two main types of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the flat cells lining the esophagus

  • Adenocarcinoma, which begins in the cells that produce and release mucus and other fluids in the top part of the stomach where it joins to the esophagus

Both types of cancer are serious and have a high mortality rate.

Cancer occurs when damaged or mutated cells begin to reproduce and spread. As the cells spread, they form tumors. Left unchecked, they can continue to spread to other parts of the body. It’s important to note that cancer can form anywhere along the esophagus, but it most often develops in the lower portion of the esophagus.

Because the lower part of your esophagus is exposed to more stomach acid when you have reflux, it’s understandable that this area would be more likely to be severely damaged. The more often it’s damaged and has to repair itself, the greater the risk for cancerous mutation.

How esophageal cancer is diagnosed

Aside from people diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, it’s hard to identify other high-risk groups. Reflux and GERD increase your risk, but the odds of developing esophageal cancer as a result are still quite low. Screenings are not done routinely.

This is because of the costs associated with the procedures that diagnose esophageal cancer, and because it’s not clear which groups are at high risk. In order to diagnosis esophageal cancer, your doctor will likely perform either an endoscopy or a barium X-ray.

Consult with your doctor if you have any indication that you have esophageal cancer. The cancerous tumor growth may block or close part of the esophagus, making it difficult to eat or drink. In some cases, depending on the location of the tumor, it can impair your ability to breathe as well. It can also cause esophageal bleeding.

In some cases, it can lead to severe weight loss as it becomes more difficult for you to swallow food or fluid. In other cases, it can erode your esophagus, creating a tunnel to your trachea, called a tracheoesophageal fistula, which can cause coughing fits whenever you swallow.

There are four different stages of cancer. The higher the stage number, the more difficult your cancer will be to treat. This does not mean that you won’t survive if you have stage IV cancer, but it does mean that you’ll be in for a serious battle.

In stage I, the cancer is only in the top layers of cells lining the esophagus. In stage II, the cancer has spread deeper into the esophageal lining and may potentially have spread to the nearby lymph nodes. In stage III, the cancer has spread deep into the esophageal wall, as well as surrounding tissues, possibly including other parts of the body.

In stage IV, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, making it much more difficult to treat.

The sooner you catch the cancer, the better your chances of survival. So, don’t miss your annual physical, and be sure to seek medical advice about your acid reflux or GERD symptoms, especially if you notice they change in frequency or severity.