The esophagus, a long muscular tube connecting the throat to the stomach, plays a crucial role in moving food through the body. Esophageal cancer, which primarily targets the cells lining the esophagus’ interior, can lead to a wide range of problems. As the cancer advances, it has the potential to harm deeper tissues and muscles. Unfortunately, most esophageal cancer cases don’t present any symptoms until the disease has reached a more advanced stage, making early detection and treatment challenging.
Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is one of the most common symptoms of esophageal cancer. Individuals affected by this condition often experience a sensation of food becoming lodged in their throat or chest, which may even lead to choking. In the early stages, dysphagia tends to be mild, but it is likely to worsen as the cancer progresses. This is because tumors grow within and along the esophagus, causing a narrowing of the passage, making it increasingly difficult to swallow.
Unexpected Weight Loss
Many individuals suffering from esophageal cancer experience unintentional weight loss due to various factors. The primary reason is reduced food intake as a result of dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. Consequently, they may alter their diets to consume fewer solid foods and more liquids. Also, it is not uncommon for cancer to suppress appetite. Intriguingly, some esophageal cancer patients exhibit an increased metabolism. Research indicates that this may be due to tumor growth directly influencing energy expenditure.
People with esophageal cancer may sometimes experience pain or discomfort in the center of their chest, while others may feel pressure or a burning sensation. However, these sensations are not always direct symptoms of the cancer itself, but rather fringe effects. Common conditions such as acid reflux, heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux disease can also cause chest pain and may be symptoms of esophageal cancer. In some cases, an individual with esophageal cancer may have a sensory disorder that results in hypersensitivity of the esophagus. Furthermore, some experts believe that chest pain could be a physical manifestation of anxiety.
Surprisingly, persistent hiccups may be an indicator of esophageal cancer. While it’s normal for these natural, involuntary diaphragm contractions to occur after eating or consuming certain beverages, frequent hiccups over an extended period could signal a more severe medical issue. Esophageal cancer has the potential to spread from the esophagus to the vagus or phrenic nerves, which control the diaphragm. As the cancer progresses, the frequency of hiccups may increase, making this a noteworthy symptom to watch out for.
Cough and Hoarseness
Esophageal cancer can lead to symptoms such as persistent coughing and changes in one’s voice, often resulting in hoarseness. The coughing may arise for various reasons, including the damage caused by tumor growth in the esophagus. For some individuals, it may feel like a continuous tickle that is momentarily relieved by coughing. In more severe cases, people might cough up mucus or even blood. Hoarseness typically occurs due to the damage in the esophagus or when the cancer spreads to the laryngeal nerves, which are responsible for the larynx or voice box. Post-surgery hoarseness can also develop as a result of irritation to the laryngeal nerves.
Dark Stools and Anemia
People with esophageal cancer may anticipate symptoms in their throat, but they might be less prepared for symptoms that appear elsewhere. It’s important to note that some individuals with this disease experience black stools, which is a result of esophageal bleeding. When this happens, the blood flows down the esophagus, into the stomach and digestive tract, and eventually exits the body with waste, causing the stool to appear discolored. In some instances, the blood loss can be severe enough to lead to anemia.
Sometimes, individuals with esophageal cancer experience a deep, aching pain that seems to originate from within the body. This is often an indication that the cancer has spread to the bones. Additionally, the disease can result in hypercalcemia, a condition characterized by excessive calcium levels in the blood. This excess calcium is drawn from the bones, significantly weakening them and leading to bone pain, muscle weakness, and depression, among other symptoms.
Indigestion is a common symptom experienced by many people with esophageal cancer. The presence of cancer can cause irritation in the stomach and digestive tract, leading to digestive complications. For instance, blood from the esophagus may aggravate the stomach lining. Moreover, individuals who frequently suffer from acid reflux are at a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer. The progression of this disease often exacerbates symptoms associated with acid reflux, making it increasingly painful and uncomfortable for the patient.
Lower Back Pain
Although relatively rare, back pain can be a symptom of esophageal cancer. This usually happens when tumors spread to the pericardium and the mediastinum. The pericardium, which surrounds the heart, offers both protection and lubrication, and connects the heart to the mediastinum – the central compartment containing the organ. If cancer reaches either of these structures, the resulting pain can radiate outwards, manifesting as back pain.
Fatigue is a prevalent symptom in most cancer cases, and esophageal cancer is no exception. The impact of this disease on an individual’s life can be immense, as the inability to swallow often leads to poor nutrition, which in turn results in fatigue. Moreover, the potential effects on bones and other bodily structures can contribute to feelings of lethargy and exhaustion. Research has shown that individuals with esophageal cancer who experience lower energy levels and heightened fatigue tend to have worse survival rates. However, it remains unclear whether this correlation is due to overall health or specific variations in the cancer itself.