Rare Esophageal Cancer Hides in Common Symptoms

In rare cases, seemingly harmless symptoms could mean esophageal cancer.

ByABC News via GMA logo
March 24, 2009, 10:42 PM

March 25, 2009 — -- Jeff Carpenter was having a little trouble swallowing and assumed it was acid reflux, a condition that ran in his family. But when the 41-year-old father of two went to the doctor, he got the shock of his life.

Carpenter was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, a rare but deadly form of cancer that attacks the throat.

Carpenter said he was floored by the news; the thought of cancer had "never even crossed [my] mind."

Click here to watch the simple test to check for esophageal cancer that was performed live on "Good Morning America."

"It's surreal," he said. "You never think it's going to happen to you."

But Carpenter is just one victim in a recent surge of esophageal cancer that some experts believe is related to the nation's growing problem with acid reflux.

Esophageal cancer can develop when stomach acid backs up into the lower esophagus, in some cases damaging cells in the inner layer of the esophagus. This abnormal cellular change is known as Barrett's esophagus, which rarely becomes cancerous.

Unfortunately, however, the disease tends to be as deadly as it is rare. Only 16,000 new cases of esophageal cancer were reported in 2008 but more than 14,000 people -- 87.5 percent -- died from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Click here for more information on the causes, symptoms and treatment of esophageal cancer.

The disease often goes undiagnosed for long periods because its symptoms do not seem unusual.

"Sometimes it can manifest as having a cough that doesn't go away," said Dr. Allyson J. Ocean, an oncologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "Sometimes it can manifest as [a] sore throat. Sometimes it can manifest as indigestion. And then a more ominous sign is difficulty swallowing."

Carpenter's difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia, is the most common symptom, but also one of the latest ones realized.

If the cancerous tumor has grown considerably, it will cause the opening of the esophagus to narrow to nearly half its usual width. By the time it begins causing a problem with swallowing, the cancer is often too large to cure easily.

Dr. Jonathan Aviv, director of the Division of Laryngology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, defines chronic coughing as a cough that lasts more than six weeks. Then, he said, it's time to see the doctor.

Carpenter was lucky, however, and caught his cancer early. After some chemotherapy and surgery, he was back to work.

To detect the cancer, doctors have developed a fairly simple test that literally takes a look down the throat.