It’s the sixth leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, yet many people are unaware they have the disease.
This is because esophageal cancer causes no symptoms at the onset of the disease.
Such was the case for former Scottish footballer Andy Goram, who was a goalkeeper and played for several clubs in Scotland and England and who recently revealed he was suffering from oesophageal cancer.
The news shocked his fans, with Goram, 58, saying he had about six months to live.
In an interview, the former footballer explained that he first started feeling ill about seven weeks ago when he was having trouble eating and drinking.
But he ignored the heartburn he initially suffered after failing to get an appointment with his GP.
Like Goram, many patients treated for esophageal cancer have stated that this disease initially presents with no symptoms or with symptoms that are often easily overlooked.
“I ignored him like everyone else”
Paul Sinclair, from Fife, Scotland, told the BBC he started feeling what “felt like gas in his lower chest” in September 2020. Sinclair also felt that he had “ate too much”.
“I ignored it like everyone else,” he says. “I was gassy. I ate well, no pain.”
“It was just a nuisance under my rib cage. It took about a week and a half, and then I was like, ‘I’m going to see someone about this.
“I went to the doctor and he sent me straight for an endoscopy. It confirmed that I had a tumor in my upper stomach.”
Sinclair underwent four rounds of chemotherapy over eight weeks before a six-week break.
He then underwent an 11-hour operation that also removed his spleen. He then underwent another “very aggressive chemotherapy regimen.”
“I was very sick from the two chemotherapy sessions,” he explains. “The second was worse because you’re already weak after the operation.”
“When you recover, you need to start eating again, chewing well, eating small portions, and eating many meals throughout the day.”
Now, three years later, Sinclair might be back in the gym for a light workout, but things will never be “quite normal.”
“You have to stay positive and be thankful for every day you wake up,” he says.
“The most important thing is that I didn’t have any particularly bad symptoms, but it’s very important not to ignore them and to control yourself.”
What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer
The esophagus is the long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. The main symptoms of cancer are:
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- feel or have nausea
- heartburn or reflux
- Symptoms of indigestion, such as profuse belching
Other symptoms include:
- a cough that doesn’t get better
- a hoarse voice
- Loss of appetite or weight loss without trying to lose it
- feeling tired or lacking energy
- Pain in the throat or center of the chest, especially when swallowing
Source: NHS (UK National Health Service)
“You never fully recover”
At 48, Linda Moffat, who also lives in Scotland, considered herself a physically fit woman who rode horses every day.
But by December 2014, she felt “the food wouldn’t come off like it was sticking to me,” she recalls. “The pain increased and the food got stuck.”
“I had to vomit to unblock it. I thought it was an ulcer. We thought it was nothing serious.”
After a while, she “gained up the courage to talk to the doctor” and was prescribed antacids. But the symptoms persisted and she was sent for an endoscopy.
A “very advanced tumor” was discovered in the esophagus and it was “the beginning of a very long and difficult journey,” she explains.
“It’s a very aggressive cancer and the surgery is really brutal: eight hours in the operating room,” she says. “You have chemotherapy before and after. You need to learn how to eat again.”
“And you have a lot of problems with vomiting and diarrhea and pain. I don’t think you’ll ever fully recover from it.”
“I’m very lucky. My cancer was very advanced and I only had a 20 percent chance of survival,” she says.
“But it’s been almost seven years and I’m very lucky to be alive and very grateful to everyone who helped me get here.”
“This disease is often called ‘the silent killer’ because the symptoms are so varied,” she adds. “You’re just praying that people get to the doctor soon enough.”
“The earliest would be best”
Caroline Geraghty, a specialist nurse at Cancer Research UK, says risk of esophageal cancer is increased by “the typical things” like smoking, drinking alcohol and gaining weight, and chewing tobacco.
“But having a higher risk doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get cancer,” she says. “Most people don’t know why they have esophageal cancer.”
Geraghty urged anyone who thinks they have symptoms to see their GP “just to be sure.”
“As we know, the earlier you get cancer, the better your chances are,” she adds.
However, she cautions that the majority of those with symptoms will not be cancer-related.
“We can understand why some general practitioners do not send the patient directly to the endoscopy; some people just need antacids,” she says.
“But there will be other people who may need faster treatment.”