Esophageal Cancer Definition
Alternative Name Cancer – esophagus
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Esophageal cancer is relatively uncommon in the United States. It occurs most often in men over 50 years old. Two main types of esophageal cancer exist: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. These two types look different from each other under the microscope.
Squamous cell esophageal cancer is associated with smoking and alcohol consumption.
Barrett’s esophagus, a complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), significantly increases the risk for adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. Other risk factors for adenocarcinoma of the esophagus include:
Backwards movement of food through the esophagus and possibly mouth (regurgitation)
Chest pain unrelated to eating
Difficulty swallowing solids or liquids
Signs and tests
Tests used to help diagnose esophageal cancer may include:
Chest MRI or thoracic CT (usually used to help determine the stage of the disease)
PET scan (sometimes useful for determining the stage of disease, and whether surgery is possible)
Stool testing may show small amounts of (occult) blood in the stool.
When esophageal cancer is only in the esophagus and has not spread, surgery is the treatment of choice. The goal of surgery is to remove the cancer.
Sometimes chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of the two may be used instead of surgery, or to make surgery easier to perform.
If the patient cannot tolerate surgery or the cancer has spread to other organs, chemotherapy or radiation may be used to help reduce symptoms. This is called palliative therapy. In such cases, the disease is usually not curable.
Other treatments that may be used to improve a patient’s ability to swallow include endoscopic dilation of the esophagus (sometimes with placement of a stent to keep the esophagus dilated), or photodynamic therapy. In photodynamic therapy, a special drug is injected into the tumor, which is then exposed to light. The light activates the medicine that attacks the tumor.
Patients can often ease the stress of illness by joining a support group of people who share common experiences and problems. See cancer – support group.
Esophageal cancer is a very difficult disease to cure. When the cancer has not spread outside the esophagus, surgery may improve chances of survival.
Radiation therapy is used instead of surgery in some cases where the cancer has not spread outside the esophagus.
For patients whose cancer has spread, cure is generally not possible and treatment is directed toward relieving symptoms.
Severe weight loss resulting from not eating enough
Spread of the tumor to other areas of the body
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if you have difficulty swallowing with no known cause and it does not get better, or if you have other symptoms of esophageal cancer.
The following may help reduce your risk of squamous cell cancer of the esophagus:
Limit or eliminate alcoholic drinks
People with symptoms of severe gastroesophageal reflux should seek medical attention.
Screening with EGD and biopsy in people with Barrett’s esophagus may lead to early detection and improved survival. People who are diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus should be checked regularly for esophageal cancer.
Orlando RC. Diseases of the esophagus. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 140.
National Cancer Institute. Esophageal Cancer Treatment PDQ. Updated July 2, 2009.
Esophageal Cancer. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Inc. 2009. Accessed October 17, 2009.