A Closer Look At Esophageal Cancer

Nurse talking to patient in doctor's office
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Esophageal cancer is a serious cancer that affects the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 5 to 10 people per 100,000 have esophageal cancer. Men are much more likely than women to develop it, and black people are more likely to have it than white individuals.

There are two types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell and adenocarcinoma.

Treatments vary on the type you're diagnosed with.

Squamous Cell

This is cancer that starts in the squamous cells of the esophagus, which form part of its lining.

Squamous cell cancer of the esophagus is often caused by smoking and alcohol consumption. Though it accounts for less than half of esophageal cancer cases in the United States, it is the most common type in other countries.


Acid reflux or GERD can cause this type of esophageal cancer. Over time, acid can change the lining of the esophagus, leading to Barrett's esophagus, a precursor to adenocarcinoma.

Because acid reflux is a very common condition in Americans, this is the most common type of esophageal cancer in the United States. Like esophageal squamous cell cancer, adenocarcinoma can also be a result of smoking.


A person with esophageal cancer may experience one or more of the following signs and symptoms.

  • heartburn and/or acid reflux
  • difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • weight loss
  • back pain
  • voice loss or hoarseness


Barium x-rays and other tests can help a doctor see the esophagus, showing lesions when they are present. However, only a biopsy can confirm the diagnosis. Typically, esophageal biopsies are performed as part of an EGD.


The following are treatment options for esophageal cancer. Depending on the type and extent of the cancer and the age and health of the patient, treatment strategies differ widely. Your doctor can best help you decide which options are best for you.

  • Surgery - This treatment is most beneficial when the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body. Surgery for esophageal cancer is a major surgery that requires expert surgical skill and can result in a slow and difficult recovery.
  • Radiation - There are two different delivery systems by which radiation is given for esophageal cancer: external and internal. Both use energy to kill malignant cells.
  • Chemotherapy - Side effects can be severe, but outcomes with chemotherapy are better than outcomes without chemotherapy for most patients.


Medline Plus. Esophageal Cancer.

National Cancer Institute. Esophageal Cancer.