Preventing Esophageal Cancer

Cancer of the esophagus, the muscular tube that carries food to the stomach, is largely preventable. There are two types of the condition: squamous cell carcinoma, which develops in the flat cells that line the esophagus, and adenocarcinoma, which arises in gland cells. In the United States, esophageal adenocarcinoma is more common than squamous cell carcinoma.

NYU Langone doctors recommend several actions you can take to reduce the likelihood of getting esophageal cancer.

Stop Smoking

Smoking increases the risk of esophageal cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma. If you smoke, doctors strongly urge you to quit. You can get help quitting through the comprehensive Tobacco Cessation Programs at NYU Langone.

Drink in Moderation

Heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of squamous cell esophageal cancer. Alcohol is recognized as a human carcinogen, and can damage the lining of the esophagus over time. Moderate alcohol intake is defined as no more than two drinks per day in men and one drink in women.

Manage Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, in which acidic stomach contents rise into the esophagus two or more times a week, you have a slightly increased risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma. The most common symptom of GERD is heartburn, in which you experience a burning sensation in your chest. Other symptoms include a sore throat and chest pain.

In Barrett’s esophagus, a condition seen usually in people who have had GERD for a long time, squamous cells in the lower esophagus become damaged. Over time, these cells are replaced by glandular cells, which are better able to stand up to the acid. This complication of GERD increases your risk of developing a form of adenocarcinoma.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

If you are overweight or obese, talk with your doctor or a dietitian about the best way to slim down. Experts in our Weight Management Program can also help.

Being obese can contribute to GERD, because excess abdominal weight may push acid into the esophagus, which increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help you lose weight. Such a diet can also help reduce your risk of developing esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. Some studies show that cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower and cabbage, contain substances that may help prevent esophageal cancer.

Prevent Human Papillomavirus Infection

Infection with certain types of human papillomavirus, or HPV, a common sexually transmitted disease, can increase your chance of developing squamous cell cancer.

The type of HPV that causes esophageal cancer is contracted through oral sex. Practicing safer sex by using condoms or other barrier methods during vaginal, oral, or anal sex can help to reduce—but does not eliminate—the risk of becoming infected with HPV.

The HPV vaccine can be effective in preventing HPV in people who are not already infected with the virus. It is recommended for people between the ages of 9 and 26.

The vaccine can help prevent other types of cancers, including those of the cervix and anus, though doctors do not yet know whether vaccination can prevent esophageal cancer.

Manage Achalasia

Achalasia is a rare disorder in which the muscles in the lower esophagus that are required to move food into your stomach gradually stop contracting. The valve or sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus also fails to open, preventing food from freely passing into the stomach. This causes the flow of food into the stomach to slow down dramatically.

Sometimes, people with achalasia experience reflux or vomit food, because it gets stuck in the lower esophagus. The esophagus may also become irritated due to food sitting in it for longer than it should.

People with achalasia have an increased long-term risk of developing esophageal cancer. There are several treatments for achalasia, including medication, injections, and surgery.

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