Cervical Esophageal Cancer

Causes, Signs & Symptoms

Causes of Cervical Esophageal Cancer

There is often no definitive cause of cervical esophageal cancer because it is caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. However, listed below are a few known risk factors for developing cervical esophageal cancer. 

  • Tobacco: Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes and using chewing tobacco greatly increase the chance of getting cervical esophageal cancer. This is the largest known risk factor.
  • Alcohol: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is also closely tied to cervical esophageal cancer. Moreover, both smoking and drinking heavily more than doubles this cancer risk.

Factors Associated with Developing Cervical Esophageal Cancer

  • Exposure to radiation in the past: Past exposure to radiation as part of a natural disaster, previous treatment for another cancer or disease, or long-term workplace radiation exposure, can increase the risk of developing some cancers of the esophagus.
  • Plummer-Vinson Syndrome: This is a very rare disease mostly seen in nonsmoking women between 30 and 50 years old. The syndrome involves a pattern of symptoms, including difficulty with swallowing, a web of tissue that partially blocks off the hypopharynx or cervical esophagus, low iron blood counts, and weight loss. People with this syndrome are at an increased risk of developing cervical esophageal cancer.

Other Factors That Increase the Risk of Developing Cancer of the Cervical Esophagus

  • A history of lye ingestion.
  • Certain viruses or bacteria.
  • Diet factors like nitrosamine (a chemical compound found in some processed meats, among other foods) or certain vitamin deficiencies.
  • Celiac disease.
  • Genetic factors.

Signs & Symptoms

In many cases, cervical esophageal cancers can get quite large before patients become aware of symptoms. The most common symptom is increasing difficulty with swallowing, but many other symptoms can also be present.

  • Pain in the throat or difficulty with swallowing.
    This can occur because a tumor is in the way of swallowing, making it difficult or painful to swallow. It often starts out as difficulty with solid foods, and when the tumor grows into the esophagus, liquids will become difficult to swallow. Additionally, pain can result from ulceration and bleeding as the tumor grows. 
  • Weight loss.
    As it becomes more and more difficult to swallow solid foods, patients often develop fairly severe weight loss. This weight loss is both from the cancer using up substantial amounts of nutrients and from the smaller amount a patient is able to eat.
  • A lump in the neck.
    This will be a symptom of cervical esophageal cancer if it has spread to lymph nodes in the neck. This can sometimes be the first symptom that brings a patient to the doctor.
  • Ear pain (particularly on one side, with no other ear problems).
    Ear pain, also known as otalgia, can occur because the nerves of the throat reach the brain through the same pathway as one of the nerves in the ear. This means the brain might interpret a pain in the throat as coming from the ear, called referred pain. Unexplained ear pain that doesn’t go away should be evaluated by a specialist. It is important to understand that most causes of ear pain are due to simple problems such as middle ear infection, dysfunction of the Eustachian tube, or TMJ pain.

Additional Symptoms

  • A hoarse voice, especially if the cancer has invaded the nerves to the voice box.
  • Coughing every time liquids are ingested if the cancer has invaded the nerves to the voice box or, very rarely, if the cancer has invaded the windpipe just behind the esophagus.
  • Feeling like there’s something stuck in the throat.
  • Bleeding (coughing or vomiting blood).

It is important to note a patient could have one or more of these symptoms but NOT have cervical esophageal cancer. There are several non-cancerous causes of the same symptoms. That’s why it’s especially important to seek medical advice from a specialist.