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By Paul Ossi, M.D.


New Simple Screening Method for a Hard-To-Detect Cancer

A sponge, capsule, and a string- It sounds like a MacGyver episode, but it’s the latest method to detect esophageal cancer.

Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Esophageal Cancer is difficult to detect and usually isn’t diagnosed until symptoms become problematic. Once symptoms are apparent, successfully treating the patient becomes challenging. Stephen Meltzer, gastroenterologist and professor of medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins University knows early detection is key. He, along with a team of researchers, have developed an inexpensive test for the deadly disease.

The EsophaCap is a small capsule that has a long string attached. The patient swallows the capsule and after it takes the short trip through the esophagus to the stomach, the capsule dissolves releasing a small 2 centimeter sponge. The physician then gently tugs on the string and brings the polyurethane sponge back through the esophagus and out through the patient’s mouth.

On the way back through the patient’s esophagus, the sponge collects genetic material that will be sent off for genetic testing. Meltzer has identified a list of genetic biomarkers used to determine a person’s risk of having or developing esophageal cancer. “Patients have a much better chance to treat it – or even prevent it – if they know their risk,” says Meltzer.

In previous studies, Meltzer successfully used a set of genetic biomarkers to detect a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus. A condition caused by prolonged exposure of the esophagus to stomach acid, which causes the body to replace the tissue that lines the esophagus with cells that can turn cancerous. Now with the EsophaCap, he has a way to collect the genetic material that holds all of the answers.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there were over 17,000 new cases of esophageal cancer and nearly 16,000 deaths from cancer of the esophagus in 2018. The five-year survival rate of cancer limited to only the esophagus is 43 percent. If it spreads to nearby tissues or organs, that rate falls to 23 percent.

The American Cancer Society website lists preventative measures you can take to reduce your risk of developing esophageal cancer. Lifestyle factors such as limiting alcohol and tobacco use, your diet and body weight can all play a role in staying cancer-free. It is also stressed that managing acid reflux is important to maintain a healthy esophagus.

Signs and symptoms you shouldn’t ignore:

  • Trouble swallowing, frequently choking or feeling like food is constantly stuck in your chest or throat. Many people will change their diets and eating habits to compensate for the discomfort without even realizing it. This is something that shouldn’t be ignored.
  • A chest pain felt a few seconds after swallowing
  • Weight loss without trying to lose weight
  • Chronic cough, hoarseness, vomiting, bone pain, anemia, hiccups

Esophageal Cancer Awareness Association

American Cancer Society

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