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In-depth: Esophageal cancer symptoms to look for and why it kills most who are diagnosed with it

It's estimated that 21,000 adults will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer this year in the U.S.
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Posted at 7:23 AM, Jul 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-12 15:31:31-04

TAMPA, Fla. — For Craig Smith, 2021 is a year he will never forget. What he thought was just indigestion ended up being a deadly disease that claims the lives of most people who get it.

“It’s more common than people know and oftentimes when people find it, it’s too late,” said Smith.

Smith did what many people do not do and it saved his life. He decided to see a specialist to get down to the bottom of his symptoms and when he did, he found out he had esophageal cancer.

This form of cancer attacks the lining of the esophagus, also known as the food pipe. The food pipe connects the mouth to the stomach.

“I needed to find a specialist and I found that with Dr. Erim at Cleveland Clinic," said Smith.

Dr. Tolga Erim is a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic Weston and he said if the cancer is caught early, specialists can treat it without a surgical procedure.

“We may be able to treat it endoscopically through the mouth, but in later stages, you would need to have surgery to remove part of the esophagus,” said Dr. Erim.

Conversely, if you wait too long, the cancer can get far enough to where surgery is no longer an option.

It can be very difficult to know for sure if you have esophageal cancer, but doctors say chronic acid reflux can be a symptom.

“In the early stages, like we said, there’s not many symptoms. In the later stages, typically, it’s difficulty swallowing. So, when you’re trying to swallow food, all of a sudden, it feels like it’s not going down as easily as it used to,” said Dr. Erim.

“If associated with that (esophageal cancer), you have some decreased weight. That needs to be looked at,” said Dr. Rick Schmidt, a surgeon associated with Baycare Health in Clearwater.

Dr. Schmidt has operated on several people with esophageal cancer.

Fast facts on esophageal cancer from the American Cancer Society:

  • It's estimated that about 21,000 adults will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer this year in the United States.
  • Men are more at risk of having this cancer. In fact, it is the seventh most common cause of cancer deaths for men in the United States.
  • It's estimated that about 16,000 people will die from this cancer in the United States this year alone.

“With time, we’ve gotten more and more capabilities for detecting the spread. Years and years ago, we didn’t have some of these capabilities,” said Dr. Schmidt.

He said nowadays they have pet scans, cat scans and ultrasound devices that better allow them to examine the esophagus which is key to catching this disease early.

“It’s just people being vigilant about their symptoms. If you’ve noticed a change in your swallowing, and I’m not saying a week’s worth – just kind of watch it for a little while – but if you got ongoing change in your swallowing, that probably needs to be looked at. If you got ongoing heartburn, that needs to be looked at,” said Dr. Schmidt.

Doctors say the best way to decrease your chances of getting esophageal cancer is by not smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol in moderation and maintaining a healthy weight.

As for Smith, he's just happy to have a second chance at life without cancer. He said this experience has made him more aware of his eating and drinking habits and the importance of being physically active.

“You know, I think once you discover this and you realize that you’ve caught it early, it just makes life all the richer and I’m certainly living life fully and doing everything that I did before and more,” said Smith.