Esophageal cancer is rising at one of the highest rates of any cancer, particularly among Caucasian men, which is often attributed to the obesity epidemic and resulting esophageal reflux. A new specialty program, the Esophageal Cancer Center, has been added to the arsenal of high-quality cancer services at the NCI-designated Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine to help fight this increasingly prevalent disease.
Q: Why was this specialty program added to the cancer center? How is this program different from other esophageal cancer practices?
A: Cancers of the esophagus are uniquely challenging to treat, for two important reasons. First, esophageal cancers are relatively uncommon in the United States, and thus many clinicians will not have experience treating individuals with these tumors with the same frequency as they do other tumor types. Second, treatment of these diseases requires a complex coordination of care between four different doctors: a thoracic surgeon, gastroenterologist, radiation oncologist, and medical oncologist.
It’s important that these care providers work in concert to synthesize an individualized treatment plan upfront, so that the right combination and sequence of therapies can be recommended in order to ensure the best possible outcome for the patient.
Having this assemblage of esophageal cancer specialists across disciplines in one place is unique to the Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center and to this region.
Q: What can patients expect from the program?
A: In short, patients can expect to be empowered in their fight against esophageal cancer.
Focusing on quality of life is also an important component of esophageal cancer treatment. For the care of some patients, this will mean partnering with our colleagues in the wider oncology community, so they can benefit from the treatment recommended by the members of the program without necessarily receiving all of the treatment directly from our team members.
When members of our program get to work with our fellow physicians in order to care for our patients, we welcome that opportunity.
Q: What are some risk factors and signs of esophageal cancer?
A: Most esophageal cancers are one of two distinct types; adenocarcinomas or squamous cell carcinomas.
Adenocarcinomas are cancers that develop from the gland cells in the esophagus, which are otherwise normally responsible for making certain secretions. Oftentimes, they develop because of chronic problems with acid reflux from the stomach up into the esophagus.
Squamous cell carcinomas are cancers that develop from the cells that line the inside of the esophagus, like the skin does on the outside of the body. In contrast to adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas usually develop in the middle of the esophagus or closer to the mouth. These cancers are often associated with the use of alcohol or tobacco.
Symptoms of esophageal cancer often include difficulty swallowing, a burning sensation, coughing up blood, fatigue, and unintentional weight loss.
Q: If I want to get evaluated for these symptoms, or for esophageal cancer, what is my first step?
A: If you have concerns that you may be experiencing these or any other symptoms, the first step is to talk to your primary care physician. He or she will review your symptoms and examine you, and determine next steps to take. If you are at risk for esophageal cancer, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist for an upper endoscopy. This is a procedure where a small camera is placed down your esophagus and into your stomach to look for any suspicious masses or lesions.
If anything suspicious is seen, a small biopsy will be taken to determine if there is a cancer present. If a cancer is found during the endoscopy, then you would be referred to an esophageal cancer specialist by your primary care physician for further work up and treatment planning.
To make an appointment with the esophageal cancer center, call 713-798-2262.
-By Allison Huseman