The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that esophageal cancer, which affects the tube that carries food from your throat to your stomach, is relatively uncommon in the United States. An estimated 17,460 people will be diagnosed with the disease in 2012, according to the ACS, and 15,070 will die from it.
This cancer is nearly four times as common among men than women, and risk of developing it increases with age. A condition called Barrett’s esophagus, in which the lining of the esophagus is damaged by prolonged acid reflux disease (GERD), is a major risk factor, though most people with GERD do not develop esophageal cancer. Cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol use and obesity also increase risk for the disease, which manifests as either squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma.
Though the ACS says treatments for esophageal cancer, which include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, have improved in recent years, the five-year survival rate remains at 15 percent to 20 percent, up from just 5 percent during the 1960s
Both Dawson and Hitchens reportedly died from “complications” of esophageal cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, those can include bleeding and obstruction of the esophagus that makes it hard to eat or drink. Hitchens suffered from pneumonia, which was apparently triggered by such an obstruction.
Learn more about esophageal cancer here.