Cancer Guide

What is Gastrointestinal Cancer?

At Ocean Radiation Oncology, the cutting-edge technology of the TomoTherapy Hi-ART treatment delivery system allows our Radiation Oncologists to treat GI cancers with precision and accuracy while minimizing radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissue. This helps lessen the risk of side effects. Plus, our well-established Stereotactic Radiation Therapy program helps us treat selected small liver tumors using highly focused, precise radiation treatments.

Definition

Many cancers of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract may require radiation therapy. These include cancers of the esophagus, stomach, and rectum. In addition, other GI tumor sites may potentially benefit from radiation therapy on a case-by-case basis, including certain tumors of the biliary tract, colon, and liver (both tumors that started in the liver and those that started elsewhere and spread to the liver, or liver metastases). Cancer care for many GI tract tumors will incorporate not only radiation therapy, but also potentially surgery and/or chemotherapy.

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Causes

When you get a diagnosis of cancer, it's natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. Doctors can seldom explain why one person develops esophageal cancer and another doesn't. However, we do know that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop esophageal cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease.

Studies have found the following risk factors for esophageal cancer:

  • Age 65 or older: Age is the main risk factor for esophageal cancer. The chance of getting this disease goes up as you get older. In the United States, most people are 65 years of age or older when they are diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
  • Being male: In the United States, men are more than three times as likely as women to develop esophageal cancer.
  • Smoking: People who smoke are more likely to develop esophageal cancer than people who don't smoke.
  • Heavy drinking: People who have more than three alcoholic drinks each day are more likely than people who don't drink to develop squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. Heavy drinkers who smoke are at a much higher risk than heavy drinkers who don't smoke. In other words, these two factors act together to increase the risk even more.
  • Diet: Studies suggest that having a diet that's low in fruits and vegetables may increase the risk of esophageal cancer. However, results from diet studies don't always agree, and more research is needed to better understand how diet affects the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
  • Obesity: Being obese increases the risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
  • Acid reflux: Acid reflux is the abnormal backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus. Reflux is very common. A symptom of reflux is heartburn, but some people don't have symptoms. The stomach acid can damage the tissue of the esophagus. After many years of reflux, this tissue damage may lead to adenocarcinoma of the esophagus in some people.
  • Barrett's esophagus: Acid reflux may damage the esophagus and over time cause a condition known as Barrett's esophagus. The cells in the lower part of the esophagus are abnormal. Most people who have Barrett's esophagus don't know it. The presence of Barrett esophagus increases the risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. It's a greater risk factor than acid reflux alone.

Many other possible risk factors (such as smokeless tobacco) have been studied. Researchers continue to study these possible risk factors.

Having a risk factor doesn't mean that a person will develop cancer of the esophagus. Most people who have risk factors never develop esophageal cancer.

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Symptoms

Early esophageal cancer may not cause symptoms. As the cancer grows, the most common symptoms are:

  • Food gets stuck in the esophagus, and food may come back up
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Pain in the chest or back
  • Weight loss
  • Heartburn
  • A hoarse voice or cough that doesn't go away within 2 weeks

These symptoms may be caused by esophageal cancer or other health problems. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

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Diagnosis

If you have a symptom that suggests esophageal cancer, your doctor must find out whether it's really due to cancer or to some other cause. The doctor gives you a physical exam and asks about your personal and family health history. You may have blood tests. You also may have:

  • Barium swallow: After you drink a barium solution, you have X-rays taken of your esophagus and stomach. The barium solution makes your esophagus show up more clearly on the X-rays. This test is also called an upper GI series.
  • Endoscopy: The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) to look down your esophagus. The doctor first numbs your throat with an anesthetic spray, and you may also receive medicine to help you relax. The tube is passed through your mouth or nose to the esophagus. The doctor may also call this procedure upper endoscopy, EGD, or esophagoscopy.
  • Biopsy: Usually, cancer begins in the inner layer of the esophagus. The doctor uses an endoscope to remove tissue from the esophagus. A pathologist checks the tissue under a microscope for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only sure way to know if cancer cells are present.

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Treatment

People with esophageal cancer have several treatment options. The options are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments. For example, radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be given before or after surgery.

The treatment that's right for you depends mainly on the following:

  • where the cancer is located within the esophagus
  • whether the cancer has invaded nearby structures
  • whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other organs
  • your symptoms
  • your general health

Esophageal cancer is hard to control with current treatments. For that reason, many doctors encourage people with this disease to consider taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods. Clinical trials are an important option for people with all stages of esophageal cancer. See the Taking Part in Cancer Research section.

You may have a team of specialists to help plan your treatment. Your doctor may refer you to specialists, or you may ask for a referral. You may want to see a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in treating problems of the digestive organs. Other specialists who treat esophageal cancer include thoracic (chest) surgeons, thoracic surgical oncologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. Your health care team may also include an oncology nurse and a registered dietitian. If your airways are affected by the cancer, you may have a respiratory therapist as part of your team. If you have trouble swallowing, you may see a speech pathologist.

Your health care team can describe your treatment choices, the expected results of each, and the possible side effects. Because cancer therapy often damages healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Before treatment starts, ask your health care team about possible side effects and how treatment may change your normal activities. You and your health care team can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.

Surgery

There are several types of surgery for esophageal cancer. The type depends mainly on where the cancer is located. The surgeon may remove the whole esophagus or only the part that has the cancer. Usually, the surgeon removes the section of the esophagus with the cancer, lymph nodes, and nearby soft tissues. Part or all of the stomach may also be removed. You and your surgeon can talk about the types of surgery and which may be right for you.

The surgeon makes incisions into your chest and abdomen to remove the cancer. In most cases, the surgeon pulls up the stomach and joins it to the remaining part of the esophagus. Or a piece of intestine may be used to connect the stomach to the remaining part of the esophagus. The surgeon may use either a piece of small intestine or large intestine. If the stomach was removed, a piece of intestine is used to join the remaining part of the esophagus to the small intestine.

During surgery, the surgeon may place a feeding tube into your small intestine. This tube helps you get enough nutrition while you heal. Information about eating after surgery is in the Nutrition section.

You may have pain for the first few days after surgery. However, medicine will help control the pain. Before surgery, you should discuss the plan for pain relief with your health care team. After surgery, your team can adjust the plan if you need more relief.

Your health care team will watch for signs of food leaking from the newly joined parts of your digestive tract. They will also watch for pneumonia or other infections, breathing problems, bleeding, or other problems that may require treatment.

The time it takes to heal after surgery is different for everyone and depends on the type of surgery. You may be in the hospital for at least one week.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cells only in the treated area.

Radiation therapy may be used before or after surgery. Or it may be used instead of surgery. Radiation therapy is usually given with chemotherapy to treat esophageal cancer.

Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat esophageal cancer. Some people receive both types:

  • External radiation therapy: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. The machine aims radiation at your cancer. You may go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for several weeks.
  • Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy): The doctor numbs your throat with an anesthetic spray and gives you medicine to help you relax. The doctor puts a tube into your esophagus. The radiation comes from the tube. Once the tube is removed, no radioactivity is left in your body. Usually, only a single treatment is done.

Side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation. External radiation therapy to the chest and abdomen may cause a sore throat, pain similar to heartburn, or pain in the stomach or the intestine. You may have nausea and diarrhea. Your health care team can give you medicines to prevent or control these problems.

Also, your skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. You may lose hair in the treated area. A much less common side effect of radiation therapy aimed at the chest is harm to the lung, heart, or spinal cord.

You are likely to be very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of external radiation therapy. You may also continue to feel very tired for a few weeks after radiation therapy is completed. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.

Radiation therapy can lead to problems with swallowing. For example, sometimes radiation therapy can harm the esophagus and make it painful for you to swallow. Or, the radiation may cause the esophagus to narrow. Before radiation therapy, a plastic tube may be inserted into the esophagus to keep it open. If radiation therapy leads to a problem with swallowing, it may be hard to eat well. Ask your health care team for help getting good nutrition. See the Nutrition section for more information.

Chemotherapy

Most people with esophageal cancer get chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs for esophageal cancer are usually given through a vein (intravenous). You may have your treatment in a clinic, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some people need to stay in the hospital for treatment.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles. Each cycle has a treatment period followed by a rest period.

The side effects depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much. Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cancer cells, but the drug can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly:

  • Blood cells: When chemotherapy lowers the levels of healthy blood cells, you're more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. Your health care team will check for low levels of blood cells. If your levels are low, your health care team may stop the chemotherapy for a while or reduce the dose of drug. There also are medicines that can help your body make new blood cells.
  • Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy may cause hair loss. If you lose your hair, it will grow back, but it may change in color and texture.
  • Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Your health care team can give you medicines and suggest other ways to help with these problems.

Other possible side effects include a skin rash, joint pain, tingling or numbness in your hands and feet, hearing problems, or swollen feet or legs. Your healthcare team can suggest ways to control many of these problems. Most go away when treatment ends.

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Cancer reference provided by the web site of the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov). The NCI Web site is periodically revised, and content may be deleted or moved. We try to ensure that existing links will redirect to the new page(s).

Cancer Guide