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Education Resources

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is cancer that occurs in the esophagus — a long, hollow tube responsible for moving food from the throat to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including mucous membrane, muscle, and connective tissue. Esophageal cancer starts in the inner lining and spreads outward through the other layers as it grows.

There are two main types of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that forms in the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the esophagus. It usually develops in the upper and middle part of the esophagus. This type may also be referred to as epidermoid carcinoma.
  • Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in glandular tissue, which is located the lower part of the esophagus where the esophagus and the stomach come together.

Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

People with esophageal cancer may or may not experience the following symptoms or signs:

  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Frequent choking on food
  • Coughing or hoarseness in the throat
  • Pain, pressure, or burning in the chest
  • Unexpected or unexplained weight loss

Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention of Esophageal Cancer

It's not exactly clear what causes esophageal cancer. Esophageal cancer is caused by changes in the DNA inside our cells, which can cause them to grow and divide out of control. As these abnormal cells accumulate, they form a tumor in the esophagus that can grow to invade nearby areas of the body such as the aorta or spine. They can also metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body that may not be near the esophagus, such as the liver or lungs.

While the cause of esophageal cancer is uncertain, there are various factors that can increase your risk of developing the disease. These risk factors can include:

  • Being between the ages of 45 and 70
  • Being male (men are 3 times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer)
  • Tobacco use
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Obesity
  • Having precancerous changes in the cells of the esophagus (Barrett’s esophagus)
  • Having acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Having achalasia, a condition where the lower muscular ring of the esophagus does not relax during swallowing of food

Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices that can help reduce the chance of acquiring the disease. This could include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption
  • Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet
  • Exercise to maintain a healthy weight