If You Notice This While Eating, It Could Be a Sign of Cancer, Doctors Say
Early detection boosts survival rates, so don't ignore this warning sign.
These days, it seems like everyone's life has been touched by cancer in some way. Most people could make a list of friends and family members who have suffered from breast cancer, melanoma, or colon cancer—or perhaps you're a cancer survivor yourself. One type of cancer that's less common, but can be incredibly deadly, is esophageal cancer.
Early diagnosis is crucial when it comes to surviving this particular disease, and luckily there are some key warning signs to watch out for. Read on to learn more about one of the most common signs, which you may notice at mealtimes.
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Esophageal cancer can affect anyone, but some people are more at risk than others.
While anyone can develop this particular type of cancer, some factors predispose certain people to get it. For example, men are about four times more likely to be diagnosed with esophageal cancer than women, and as you get older, you're more at risk, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), which estimates that people under age 55 make up fewer than 15 percent of total cases. The American Cancer Society (ACS) also lists several lifestyle choices that could contribute to your risk factor, such as tobacco use, drinking alcohol, or having a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables.
Certain other diseases or medical conditions may also predispose you to higher risk, says the ACS. Some of those include Barrett's esophagus (caused by persistent acid reflux), dysplasia (pre-cancerous clumps of abnormal cells), achalasia (a condition wherein the muscles in your lower esophageal sphincter don't relax correctly), and tylosis (a rare hereditary disorder which affects the skin on your palms and the soles of your feet).
Especially if you have any of these demographic, lifestyle, or medical factors, make sure to keep your eye out for one telltale sign esophageal cancer.
You'll notice this warning sign when you're eating.
Very few cases of esophageal cancer are diagnosed with no symptoms at all, as there is no routine screening which is effective and accepted, so paying attention to how your throat feels is crucial in order to catch a case of this cancer as early as possible.
One of the most common symptoms listed by the ACS is trouble swallowing. Occasionally struggling to get down a piece of food from time to time isn't the issue—rather, you'll want to look out for "persistent dysphagia," an ongoing painful or uncomfortable sensation that feels like food is stuck in your throat or chest for an extended period of time.
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Difficulty swallowing could lead to other serious health risks.
Dysphagia can also be a huge contributing factor to choking incidents, according to the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS). In their overview of dysphagia, they explain that frequent coughing or choking on food "can lead to chest infections, such as aspiration pneumonia, which require urgent medical treatment."
If you're tempted to avoid certain foods, or rely on soft foods and liquids as a way to avoid choking incidents, remember that avoidance won't address the root issue. It's important to speak with your healthcare provider to help you get to the bottom of these symptoms.
Watch out for these additional symptoms of esophageal cancer.
According to the ACS, a handful of other symptoms may also point to esophageal cancer. Some of these include chest pain (especially a "pressure or burning" in the center of the chest), weight loss (often caused by avoiding foods that trigger painful swallowing), hoarseness in the throat, a chronic cough that doesn't go away, and vomiting.
More severe symptoms can also include bone pain (indicating that the cancer has spread to your bones) and bleeding into the esophagus (which can cause anemia and fatigue).
Painful swallowing can have other causes.
Difficulty swallowing (and any of the symptoms listed above) could be evidence of esophageal cancer, but could just as easily point to other ailments. According to University of California San Francisco Health, trouble swallowing for more than two weeks could also be a sign of lung cancer (which affects nearly a quarter million new patients each year in the U.S.) or stomach cancer (which accounts for about one and a half percent of all new cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year).
However, it's also true that painful swallowing could be indicative of less deadly issues than cancer. As reported by WebMD, this unpleasant sensation could potentially point to strep throat, mono, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—or it might simply be a side effect of a cold, flu, or sinus infection.
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It's important to take this symptom seriously.
"It's very uncommon, it's only about one percent of all cancers within the United States," Shanda Blackmon, MD, MPH from the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center, says in a Mayo Clinic Q&A video. But, she continues, "it's one of the deadliest cancers we know of."
Sixteen thousand Americans die each year from esophageal cancer. The Mayo Clinic reports that it is "the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide." Its deadliness is due in part to how common it is for early stages of the cancer to go undetected, with more obvious symptoms arising in later stages after the cancer has progressed (and become more difficult to treat).
When it comes to difficulty swallowing, or any other signs of this rare cancer, be sure to flag any persistent and worrying symptoms with your healthcare provider. It pays to be especially vigilant if you have an official Barrett's esophagus's diagnosis, which puts you at higher risk.