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The esophagus is the muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. Cancers of the esophagus start from its inner layer and grow outward, originating in either from the squamous cells that routinely line the inner surface of the esophagus or glandular tissue that develops within the esophagus.

The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 13,900 new esophageal cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2003. Although survival rates have been improving, most people with esophageal cancer eventually die of this disease because it is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage. Experts predict that this year, there will be 13,000 deaths from esophageal cancer.

Diagnosis and Early Detection

Early cancers of the esophagus have no symptoms and there are no tests that can screen for esophageal cancer. In most cases, it is discovered because of symptoms -- and the presence of symptoms usually indicates that the cancer is at an advanced stage, when a cure will be unlikely.

Difficulty swallowing is the most common symptom, but patients usually don't notice this until the diameter of the esophagus has been narrowed substantially. The course of treatment and outlook for the patient's recovery depends, to a great extent, on the stage of the cancer.

Follow-up Treatment and Cancer Recurrence

The treatment for esophageal cancer like most cancer treatments may cause side effects, so your doctor will schedule you for routine follow-up visits to help manage those side effects and check for how effective the treatment is and whether or not the cancer is spreading. Your doctors may order follow up tests. This is also where PET can help.

Imaging with PET is also critical to looking for the return of the cancer. In many patients with esophageal cancers, a mass may remain after treatment. The mass itself may be on CT scan, but CT cannot determine if the tumor has been successfully treated or if residual cancer remains that must be treated.

PET can also image tumor response to therapy and detect recurrence in successfully treated lesions. After surgery and other treatments, PET is extremely important in monitoring whether the cancer cells have returned and if treatment should be re-started.

Find the support you need! Treatment of cancer of the esophagus may result in significant symptoms that may be difficult for the patient to address. Local or regional organizations provide information and support to patients and their families.

For More Information

Find the support you need! Several organizations provide information and support to patients and their families, including the following: