- How is cancer of the esophagus treated?
- Surgery for cancer of the esophagus
- Radiation therapy for cancer of the esophagus
- Chemotherapy for cancer of the esophagus
- Targeted therapy for cancer of the esophagus
- Endoscopic treatments for cancer of the esophagus
- Clinical trials for cancer of the esophagus
- Complementary and alternative therapies for cancer of the esophagus
- Treating cancer of the esophagus by stage
- Recurrent cancer of the esophagus
- Palliative therapy for cancer of the esophagus
- More treatment information about cancer of the esophagus
Endoscopic treatments for cancer of the esophagus
Several types of treatment for esophageal cancer can be done by passing an endoscope (a long, flexible tube) down the throat and into the esophagus. Some of these treatments may be used to try to cure very early stage cancers, or even to prevent them from developing by treating Barrett's esophagus or dysplasia. Other treatments are used mainly to help relieve symptoms from more advanced esophageal cancers that can't be removed.
Endoscopic mucosal resection
Endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR) is a technique where the inner lining of the esophagus is removed with instruments attached to the endoscope. EMR can be used for dysplasia (pre-cancer) and some very early focal (single, small tumors) cancers of the esophagus.
After the abnormal tissue is removed, patients take drugs called proton pump inhibitors to suppress acid production in the stomach. This can help keep the disease from returning.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a method that can be used to treat esophageal pre-cancer (dysplasia) and some early esophageal cancers. These may be found when Barrett's esophagus is biopsied. PDT can also be used to help with symptoms for some cancers that are too advanced to be removed.
For this technique, a light-activated drug called porfimer sodium (Photofrin®) is injected into a vein. Over the next couple of days, the drug is more likely to collect in cancer cells than in normal cells. A special type of laser light is then focused on the cancer through an endoscope. This light causes changes in the drug that has collected inside the cancer cells, changing it into a new chemical that can kill cancer cells. The dead cells may then be removed a few days later during an upper endoscopy. This process can be repeated if needed.
The advantage of PDT is that it can kill cancer cells with very little harm to normal cells. But because the chemical must be activated by light, it can only kill cancer cells near the inner surface of the esophagus – those that can be reached by the light. This light cannot reach cancers that have spread deeper into the esophagus or to other organs.
PDT may cause swelling in the esophagus for a few days, which may lead to some problems swallowing. Strictures (areas of extreme narrowing) can also occur in some patients. These often need to be treated by with dilation. Other possible side effects include bleeding or holes in the esophagus.
Some of this drug also collects in normal cells in the body, such as skin and eye cells. This can make you very sensitive to sunlight or strong indoor lights. Too much exposure can cause serious skin reactions, which is why doctors recommend staying out of any strong light for 4 to 6 weeks after the injection.
This treatment can cure some very early esophageal cancers that have not spread to deeper tissues. But this procedure destroys the tissue, so it can be hard to be certain that the cancer has not spread into deeper layers of the esophagus. Since the light used in PDT may only reach those cancer cells near the surface of the esophagus, cells of deeper cancers could be left behind, and grow into a new tumor. People getting this treatment need to have follow-up endoscopies to make sure the cancer hasn't grown back. They also need to stay on a drug called a proton pump inhibitor to stop stomach acid production.
PDT is being used to treat Barrett's esophagus and very early esophageal cancers found in Barrett's esophagus. When PDT is used to treat dysplasia (pre-cancer) in Barrett's esophagus, it cuts the chance of a cancer developing by about half.
PDT is also often used to treat large cancers that are blocking the esophagus. In this situation, PDT is not meant to destroy all of the cancer, but to kill enough of the cancer to improve the patient's ability to swallow.
For more information, please see our document, Photodynamic Therapy.
Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)
This procedure can be used to treat dysplasia in areas of Barrett's esophagus. It may lower the chance of cancer developing in that area.
In this procedure, a balloon containing many small electrodes is passed into an area of Barrett's esophagus through an endoscope. The balloon is then inflated so that the electrodes are in contact with the inner lining of the esophagus. Then an electrical current is passed through it, which kills the cells in the lining by heating them.
Over time, normal cells will grow in to replace the Barrett's cells. The patient needs to stay on drugs to block stomach acid production after the procedure. Endoscopy (with biopsies) then is done periodically to watch for any further changes in the lining of the esophagus. RFA rarely causes strictures (narrowing) or bleeding in the esophagus.
This technique can be used to help open up the esophagus when it is blocked by an advanced cancer. This can help improve problems swallowing.
In this treatment, a laser beam is aimed at the cancer through the tip of an endoscope. The laser opens up the esophagus by vaporizing and coagulating cancerous tissue. The laser used is called a neodymium: yttrium-aluminum-garnet (Nd:YAG) laser. Most patients will benefit from laser endoscopy, but the cancer often grows back, so the procedure may need to be repeated every month or two.
Argon plasma coagulation
This technique is similar to laser ablation, but it uses argon gas and a high-voltage spark delivered through the tip of an endoscope. The spark causes the gas to reach very high temperatures, which can then be aimed at the tumor. This approach is used to help unblock the esophagus when the patient has trouble swallowing.
This method involves passing a probe down into the esophagus through an endoscope and then burning the tumor off with electric current. In some cases, this treatment can help relieve esophageal blockage.
A stent is a device made of mesh material. Most often stents are made out of metal, but they can also be made out of plastic. Using endoscopy, a stent can be placed into the esophagus across the length of the tumor. Once in place, it self-expands (opens up) to become a tube that helps hold the esophagus open.
The success of the stent depends on the type of stent that is used and where it is placed. Stents will relieve trouble swallowing in most patients that are treated. They are often used after other treatments to help keep the esophagus open.
Last Medical Review: 12/10/2012
Last Revised: 01/18/2013