Why is oesophageal cancer so hard to cure?

21st February 2024

Oesophageal cancer is the 10th most common cancer worldwide, and the 7th most common cause of cancer death around the world. Despite being so common, it is not as well-known as many other cancer types - and advanced oesophageal cancer can be aggressive and difficult to treat. But why is it so hard to cure? And how is discovery research providing hope for the future?

It is difficult to diagnose oesophageal cancer at an early stage

Oesophageal cancer is cancer that starts in the oesophagus, also called the gullet or food pipe, which connects the throat to the stomach. 

Someone with oesophageal cancer may not notice any signs of a problem at first, but when symptoms first appear they are most likely to experience: difficulty swallowing, feeling & being sick, heartburn or acid reflux or symptoms similar to indigestion, such as burping a lot.

The symptoms can be similar to other conditions like acid reflux, making it hard to detect.

Oesophageal cancer can spread, making it harder to treat

If caught early enough, oesophageal cancer may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or immunotherapy. If undiagnosed or left untreated too long, oesophageal cancer can spread to other parts of the body and this makes it much harder to cure. And because oesophageal cancer can be so difficult to spot, the likelihood of being diagnosed later, is higher. 

Oesophageal cancer tends to spread to nearby lymph nodes, the lungs, and most commonly the liver. How advanced the cancer is will determine which treatment approach is most effective, and how likely it will be to cure the cancer.

Some types of oesophageal cancer are particularly aggressive

Oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) is an aggressive form of oesophageal cancer that is often diagnosed only once the cancer has already spread. This means survival rates for OSCC are much lower than some other cancers. Gaining a better understanding of the early stages of OSCC is crucial so that patients can be diagnosed and treated earlier than is currently possible.

How are our Curestarters helping to start new cures for oesophageal cancer?

With the continued support of our Curestarters, Dr Blaydon and Professor David Kensell in London are currently studying a rare disease called tylosis with oesophageal cancer (TOC), which is linked with an increased risk of developing OSCC. By analysing how TOC causes OSCC, the researchers hope to identify early changes that can help us diagnose and treat OSCC patients sooner. This could mean more patients surviving longer as earlier treatments often work better.

And in a project co-funded with our Curestarter co-funders Guts UK, Dr Maria Alcolea in Cambridge is exploring new ways to prevent oesophageal cancer by learning more about the tumour microenvironment and the interactions between different mutations in cancer cells. 

Worldwide Cancer Research has already funded over £1.6 million in research on oesophageal cancer and conditions like Barratt’s oesophagus, which can lead to oesophageal cancer.

Your support can help support more vital research like these projects. Will you become a Curestarter today?

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