An Overview of Esophageal Cancer

Doctor touching throat
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Esophageal cancer is a tumor that begins to grow in the lining of the esophagus and then can grow through the wall of the esophagus. If the tumor grows through the esophageal wall, it can then spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system.​

Most of the length of the esophagus is lined with squamous cells. If a malignant tumor grows here, it's called squamous cell cancer. The areas at the bottom of the esophagus, and where the esophagus joins the stomach, are lined with columnar cells.

If a malignant tumor grows here, it's called adenocarcinomas.

Studies have shown a relationship between the frequency of reflux symptoms and risk of adenocarcinoma. The constant acid reflux will irritate the lining of the esophagus, and complications can occur, such as Barrett's esophagus. Individuals who develop Barrett's esophagus are about 40 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than individuals in the general population.


  • Heartburn
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Inability to swallow solid foods (eventually liquids also)
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Food sticking in esophagus
  • Weight loss
  • Regurgitation of undigested food
  • Vomiting blood or passing old blood with bowel movements



Treatment of esophageal cancer will depend on the stage the cancer is in at the time of diagnosis, the overall condition of the patient, and whether cancer has spread to other organs.

If cancer has not spread to other organs, surgery may be performed to remove a portion of the esophagus. In some cases, the surgery will also involve removing the stomach, spleen, and lymph nodes inside the chest. Then another part of the lower bowel is pulled up and attached to the remaining section of esophagus.

Patients may receive chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments after the surgery.

If cancer has spread to other organs, combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy is the most common treatment. This form of treatment is also used in the cases where the patient can't have surgery.


If the cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, the patient's chances of living and be cancer-free five years after treatment are greatly improved. Unfortunately, most cases of esophageal cancer are only discovered when the patient comes to their doctor because of swallowing difficulty, which doesn't happen until later stages of the cancer growth. The prognosis then is very poor.


Lightdale, M.D., Charles J.. "Esophageal Cancer." Vol. 94, No. 1, 1999. The American Journal of Gastroenterology.

"What You Need to Know About Cancer of the Esophagus - Types of Esophageal Cancer." National Cancer Institute.