If we analyse the cases of oesophageal cancer in Switzerland, we find that around 600 people suffer from this serious disease every year. The main risk for the development of oesophageal cancer are reflux diseases, which clearly favour the development of cancer in the oesophagus due to the pathological acid regurgitation. About three quarters of those affected are men. One of the promising therapies for oesophageal cancer is oesophagectomy, which will be explained in more detail in this article.

More information and interesting insights directly from Prof. Dr. med. Jörg Zehetner can be experienced in a Zoom Online lecture. Date: 10 March 2021, 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm.

Let’s start by explaining the technical terms that are important for this topic

The medical term reflux refers to the backflow of gastric acid from the stomach into the oesophagus. In layman’s terms, this is described as acid reflux. The cause of the backflow of stomach acid into the oesophagus is a weakening of the muscle at the end of the oesophagus (cardia). In addition to the actual acid regurgitation, patients describe such things as frequent heartburn, burning in the chest area or also stomach burning.

The oesophagus is called the oesophagus in medical vocabulary. Functionally, the oesophagus is a kind of muscular tube that transports food into the stomach through contractions. In the stomach, stomach acid, among other things, is responsible for breaking down the food as part of the digestion process. To protect the oesophagus from the constant acid attack, there is a muscle at the bottom of the oesophagus that closes it when it is functioning normally. If the function of this muscle is impaired, the reflux described above occurs.

In medicine, resection is the surgical removal of an organ or part of an organ. With reference to our topic, oesophagectomy is accordingly the surgical removal of the largest part of the oesophagus.

The risk factors for the development of oesophageal cancer

Over the years, the main risk factors for developing oesophageal cancer have changed somewhat. Whereas in the past it was smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, today it is persistent (pathological) acid regurgitation and obesity that significantly increase the risk of oesophageal cancer. If you follow the relevant advice books, acid blockers and diets are often recommended to get the problem of reflux under control. However, this only addresses the individually noticeable phenomena, but not the cause. Therefore, the risk of developing oesophageal cancer remains in the medium and long term unless the causes of acid regurgitation are consistently addressed. What remains is the no longer correctly functioning “valve” at the end of the oesophagus, i.e. the muscle that prevents the stomach acid from rising into the oesophagus. If no improvement can be achieved here, then the constant acid attack on the oesophagus ultimately threatens oesophageal cancer. Surgery on the reflux muscle at the right time can significantly reduce the risk.

From complaints to diagnosis

One of the most common complaints that bring patients to the doctor is difficulty swallowing. After anamnesis and a more detailed description of the symptoms, a gastroscopy is often performed. If malignant tissue is discovered or suspected in the oesophagus or at the transition to the stomach, it can be removed under a short anaesthetic using a type of mini forceps. A laboratory examination will confirm whether or not this is malignant tissue. In the former case, it must then be assumed that there is oesophageal cancer, which must be treated surgically as a matter of urgency. Once the diagnosis of oesophageal cancer has been made, the decision for a suitable therapy must be made.

Recommendation: Combined therapy

Before therapeutic steps are taken, the severity of the disease and the spatial spread of the oesophageal cancer must first be examined more closely and determined in detail. Computer tomography (CT) of the chest and abdomen is the method of choice for this. In this way, it is also possible to assess whether there are deposits in the lungs and liver. An ultrasound scan of the oesophagus can also assess deposits in the lymph glands.

A common feature of the work of the medical specialists at Swiss1Chirurgie and at the Beau-Site Clinic is an interdisciplinary tumour board, where specialists from all the disciplines involved carry out a precise assessment of the symptoms, risks and treatment options. In addition to recommending therapeutic measures, this also includes timely clarification of follow-up treatment.

In most of the cases, a combined therapy is considered by the tumour board. This combination consists of an upstream chemotherapy, which is to be understood as a preparation for the actual surgical intervention within the scope of the oesophageal resection. If necessary, radiotherapy can also be part of the treatment. The surgical intervention takes place a few weeks after the start of chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

The esophagectomy procedure

Thanks to modern surgical techniques, the removal of the oesophagus (oesophagectomy) can be performed as a minimally invasive procedure (also called keyhole surgery). The operation itself takes about three to four hours and is performed under anaesthesia. Through small incisions in the abdominal wall, the connections of the oesophagus to the stomach and at the diaphragm are loosened. The lymph glands in the abdomen are then removed, followed by removal of the oesophagus itself either through the abdomen or through the chest. The adjacent tissue, which may also be affected by tumour cells, is also removed.

In a further step, the stomach is formed into a tube. This stomach tube is finally connected to the upper remaining end of the oesophagus in the neck area. Afterwards, the success of the surgical procedure is checked using a method specially developed by Dr. Jörg Zehetner. For this purpose, a fluorescent substance is injected into the patient’s bloodstream. Within five to ten seconds, a laser camera can be used to determine whether the result of the operation is satisfactory.

Rapid mobilisation and recovery of patients

A clear advantage of modern surgical techniques in the context of oesophageal resection is the short time patients spend in hospital. With independent breathing, the operated patients wake up from the anaesthesia and remain in the intensive care unit for one to two days, depending on their condition, to monitor their bodily functions. In the normal ward, a swallowing X-ray is taken as early as five days after the operation to check whether the connection between the stomach tube and the beginning of the oesophagus has healed well. If this can be confirmed, the diet can be slowly built up.

Depending on the individual development, the clinic stay itself lasts about one week to ten days. This is followed by a two-week rehabilitation measure, which helps the patient to heal quickly. After just three months, the patient experiences his or her original quality of life, now without oesophageal cancer and the unpleasant accompanying symptoms. In principle, everything can now be eaten again, perhaps in smaller portions, but spread over several meals a day.

More information and interesting insights directly from Prof. Dr. med. Jörg Zehetner can be experienced in a Zoom Online lecture. Date: 10 March 2021, 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm.