The death of the ex-governor of Texas, Ann Richards marks the rapid increase in esophageal cancer cases in the US.
She died 6 months after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Only 16 % or around 2,200, of the 14,000-esophageal cancer cases diagnosed in the US this year, will survive in 5 years.
There has been a 6-fold annual rise in the number of esophageal cancer cases over the past 20 years, according to experts. Rise in obesity cases has been the major cause.
The two major forms of esophageal cancer are; the upper esophagus cancer and the lower esophagus cancer. The former is linked with alcohol and smoking while the latter is linked with heartburn.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said "The rise in esophageal cancer is the direct result of GERD [gastric esophageal reflux disease], which has been increasing as our nation gets heavier. In both forms, irritation — whether from smoking, alcohol or stomach acid — causes damage to cells, which the body then repairs. Unfortunately, these new cells are much more susceptible to cancer. "
Barrett's esophagus is the milder form of the disease. In this condition, more cancer-prone cells substitute large number of the normal cells. Barrett's esophagus increases the risk of esophageal cancer development by 30 times.
Esophageal cancer is a silent killer. The symptoms become obvious at a very advanced stage. Difficulty in swallowing, pain in the throat and weight loss is some of them.
Chemotherapy or radiation therapy followed by surgery is the present treatment. However, the rate of survival is very low.
"So far, all people can do to decrease their risk of this cancer is stop smoking, stop drinking and lose weight," Lichtenfeld said.
Recently, many experimental therapies are being tested to study how they block the alteration from normal to cancerous cells. Radio frequency ablation (using signals to burn the cells), cryotherapy (freezing the cells), photodynamic therapy (using light to kill the cells) and surgical removal of abnormal cells are some of them. Their efficiency in the long-term is yet to be found.