Health Questions and Answers


Who gets esophageal cancer?
Squamous cell cancer of the esophagus occurs in the 40- to 60-year-old age group and is seen mainly in men. The incidence is increased in Africa, China, Russia, Japan, Scotland, and the Caspian region of Iran. In the U.S. the nonwhite male population is at increased risk. Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus tends to occur in obese white men.

List the risk factors for esophageal cancer.

  • Excessive alcohol and/or tobacco use
  • Native Bantu beer (southern Africa)
  • Chronic hot beverage ingestion
  • Lye ingestion: > 30% of cases develop esophageal cancer
  • Tylosis: > 40% of cases develop esophageal cancer
  • Achalasia
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome
  • Nontropical sprue
  • Prior oral and pharyngeal cancer
  • Occupational exposure to asbestos, combustion products, ionizing radiation
  • Other occupational exposure: waiters, bartenders, metal workers, and construction workers
  • Decreased dietary intake of fruits and vegetables throughout adulthood

Discuss the incidence of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
The incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma has greatly increased over the past two decades. Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is now more prevalent than squamous cell carcinoma in the United States and Western Europe, with most tumors located in the distal esophagus and esophagogastric junction.

What are the risk factors for adenocarcinoma of the esophagus?
Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus in a younger population without the traditional risk factors has been associated with chronic esophagitis, reflux disease, and Barrett’s esophagus.

How does esophageal cancer present?

  • Dysphagia: first with solids, then with liquids
  • Weight loss
  • Regurgitation
  • Occult GI bleeding
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Choking
  • Hoarseness
  • Chest pain on swallowing
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

How should esophageal cancer be treated?
The only curative procedure is surgery. However, fewer than half of patients are operable at the time of presentation, and of these, only one half to two thirds have tumors that are resectable. Nonsurgical patients are treated with combined chemoradiotherapy or palliative measures alone if their performance status is too poor for active therapy. Some evidence indicates that survival in patients with adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is improved with preoperative combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Ongoing trials are investigating whether the outcome with chemoradiotherapy is equivalent to that of surgery.

List the risk factors for gastric cancer.

  • Precursor conditions
  • Chronic atrophic gastritis and intestinal metaplasia
  • Pernicious anemia
  • Partial gastrectomy for benign disease
  • H. pylori infection
  • Ménétrier’s disease
  • Gastric adenomatous polyps
  • Barrett’s esophagus
  • Genetic and environmental factors
  • Family history of gastric cancer
  • Blood type A
  • Hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer syndrome
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Low consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • Consumption of salted, smoked, or poorly preserved foods
  • Cigarette smoking (?)

Discuss the role of oncogenes and tumor-suppressor genes in gastric cancer.
The role of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes is currently being elucidated. Allelic deletions of the MCC, APC, and p53 tumor-suppressor genes have been reported in 33, 34, and 64% of gastric cancers, respectively. Disparities between mutations associated with the intestinal and diffuse types of gastric cancers may account for their different natural histories.

List the risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

  • Smoking (2-3 times increased risk)
  • Diet high in calories, fat, and protein, low in fruits and vegetables
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Surgery for peptic ulcer disease
  • Occupational exposure to 2-naphthylamine and petroleum products (> 10 yr increases risk to 5:1), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)

What hereditary syndromes increase the risk for pancreatic cancer?
Familial pancreatic cancer, hereditary pancreatitis, familial adenomatous polyposis syndrome, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (hereditary dysplastic nevus syndrome), BRCA2, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.

Do gender and ethnicity affect the risk for pancreatic cancer?
Males > females
Blacks > whites

How is the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer confirmed?
If a lesion in the pancreas is seen, CT or EUS-guided fine-needle aspirate can confirm the diagnosis of malignancy. Additional staging includes routine laboratory studies, chest x-ray, and other tests as directed by the history and physical. If there is bone pain or elevated alkaline phosphatase, then bone scan should be done.

What is the most important risk factor for hepatocellular carcinoma?
Underlying cirrhosis appears to be the most important risk factor for the development of hepatocellular carcinoma. Macronodular cirrhosis is found in 85% of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma. In the United States, alcoholic cirrhosis is an important cause. Chronic infection with hepatitis B or C viruses is the major etiologic agent for human hepatocellular carcinoma around the world, since it causes development of cirrhosis.

What other risk factors may be involved?
Extensive studies of aflatoxins in human foods in Africa suggest a quantitative relationship between average human aflatoxin consumption and the incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma. In a small proportion of hepatocellular carcinomas, the cause appears to be related to other factors, including other hepatotropic viruses, chemicals, mycotoxins, and hepatic parasites. The relative importance of these factors seems to vary among populations.

List the common presenting features of primary tumors of the liver.

  • Asthenia (85-90%)
  • Hepatomegaly (50-100%)
  • Abdominal pain (50-70%)
  • Jaundice (45-80%)
  • Fever (9.5%)

List the unusual ways in which hepatomas may present.

  • Hemoptysis secondary to pulmonary metastases
  • Rib mass secondary to bony metastasis
  • Encephalitis-like picture secondary to brain metastasis
  • Heart failure secondary to cardiac metastasis and thrombosis of the inferior vena cava
  • Priapism secondary to soft-tissue metastasis
  • Bone pain and pathologic fractures secondary to bony metastases

What are the systemic manifestations of hepatocellular carcinoma?

  • Endocrine: erythrocytosis, hypercalcemia
  • Nonendocrine: hypoglycemia, porphyria cutanea tarda, cryofibrinogenemia, osteoporosis, hyperlipidemia, dysfibrinogenemia, alpha fetoprotein synthesis.

Which environmental factors are thought to be related to the development of colon cancer?
Abundant epidemiologic data support the link between environmental factors and colorectal cancer:

  • A diet high in fat and red meat increases the risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Consuming fresh fruits and vegetables decreases the risk.
  • Physical inactivity and central obesity increase the risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Regular use of NSAIDs, especially aspirin, may lessen the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Nevertheless, as with all epidemiologic data, confounding factors not identified may be significant.

Besides environmental factors, what other risk factors are associated with the development of colon cancer?
Up to 15% of patients with colorectal cancer have a family history of the disease, suggesting the involvement of a genetic factor or factors. Among the genes identified for involvement in colorectal carcinogenesis are K-ras, APC, DCC, hMSH2, hMLH1, hPMS1, and p53. Patients who have had polyps or whose first-degree family members had polyps are at a moderately increased risk. Patients with inflammatory bowel disease, especially ulcerative colitis, are at very high risk for developing colorectal cancer.

What syndromes are associated with colon cancer?
Familial adenomatous polyposis, Gardner’s syndrome, and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer are autosomal dominant syndromes. The first two account for < 1% of all colorectal cancers, and the last for 6-15%. Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer is a familial cancer syndrome that differs in natural history and genetic characteristics from sporadic colorectal cancer.

What is familial polyposis coli?
Familial polyposis coli is characterized by thousands of adenomatous polyps throughout the large bowel. If left untreated, cancer will develop in all patients with this syndrome. The cancer will usually manifest before age 40. The more common nonpolyposis syndrome also involves the proximal large bowel. The median age at presentation is < 50 years, and patients with a strong family history should be intensively screened.

What other nonenvironmental risk factors may be involved in colorectal cancer?

  • Age > 40 yrs in symptomatic patients
  • Associated diseases: ulcerative colitis, granulomatous colitis, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
  • Past history: colon cancer or polyps, female genital or breast cancer

What are the presenting symptoms of colon cancer?
The presenting symptoms depend on the location of the lesion. Lesions in the ascending colon, where the stool is still quite liquid, do not present with mass effects. However, these tumors frequently ulcerate, leading to chronic blood loss. Patients present with symptoms of anemia or with guaiac-positive stools on screening tests. In the transverse bowel, the stool is more concentrated and formed, so that symptoms of obstruction such as abdominal cramping, abdominal pain, or perforation may occur. Cancers in the rectosigmoid present with tenesmus, decreased stool caliber, and hematochezia.

What are the uses and limitations for CEA level testing?
CEA is an antigen produced by many colon cancers. It should not be used for cancer screening because it is very nonspecific and not sensitive enough to pick up early cancers. It is usually (85% of cases) normal in patients with stage I disease, those who are most amenable to curative surgery. It has also been found to be elevated in cancers of the stomach, pancreas, breast, ovary, and lung and with various nonmalignant conditions such as alcoholic liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, heavy cigarette smoking, chronic bronchitis, and pancreatitis.

When should CEA testing be done?
Testing should be done preoperatively in patients undergoing resection for colon cancer, so that the data can be used to follow the course of the disease. The CEA level is only useful if it is high before treatment. CEA should return to normal in 30-45 days after complete resection of the cancer. A preoperative elevated level that returns to normal after surgery, but then subsequently becomes elevated, is a very reliable indicator of tumor recurrence. CEA can also be used as a marker for response to chemotherapy.

List the two roles of chemotherapy in the treatment of colon cancer.

  • Treatment of metastatic disease
  • Adjuvant treatment

Which agents are commonly used for treatment of metastatic disease?
5-Fluorouracil (5-FU), leucovorin, capecitabine, irinotecan (CPT-11), and oxaliplatin, alone or in combination, plus newer agents such as bevacizumab (Avastin). Response rates in metastatic disease are in the range of 20-40%.

How is chemotherapy used as an adjuvant treatment for colon cancer?
Patients who were treated with 5-FU and leucovorin after curative-intent resections of stage III colon cancer were found to have reduced recurrence rate and death rate compared to untreated controls. Chemotherapy is now considered standard postoperative therapy for stage III patients. In stage II disease, adjuvant treatment is sometimes given to patients at high risk for recurrence, as judged by pathologic features of the resected specimens.

National Cancer Database:
National Guideline Clearinghouse:
PDQ Cancer Information Summaries:
SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2000:


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  1. Adelia Valsin Says:

    Awesome! What a cool idea. Nice work as usual guys…

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