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Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal Cancer

Animation Movie Available Related Media: Upper GI Endoscopy


The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Esophageal cancer is the growth of cancer cells in this tube.

There are 2 main types of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell cancer—from the cells that line the upper part of the esophagus
  • Adenocarcinoma—from the cells where the esophagus meets the stomach
Esophageal Cancer
Esophageal cancer
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Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these uncontrolled cells form a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant growths. These growths invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells, but is likely a combination of genetics and environment.

Risk Factors

Esophageal cancer is more common in men, and in people aged 50 years and older.

Other factors that may increase your chances of esophageal cancer:

  • Smoking or smokeless tobacco use such as chewing tobacco or snuff
  • Excess alcohol use—risk is compounded with combined alcohol and tobacco use
  • History of gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), especially if this has caused Barrett esophagus
  • Achalasia—chronic dilation of the esophagus
  • Radiation therapy
  • Obesity
  • Damaged esophagus from toxic substances, such as lye
  • History of head and/or neck cancer
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Certain rare genetic conditions such as Plummer Vinson syndrome and tylosis


Esophageal cancer may cause:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Painful swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Cough (from aspiration)
  • Hoarse voice
  • Pain in the throat, back, chest
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Coughing up blood
  • Black tarry stools
  • Hiccups


You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your esophagus may need to be viewed. This can be done with:

  • CT scan
  • PET/CT scan
  • Barium swallow—use of contrast material to examine the esophagus with x-ray
  • Upper GI endoscopy with biopsy—examination of esophagus with a lighted scope, and removal of a small sample of esophageal tissue
  • Bone scan if spread to the bones is suspected


Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options are based on the stage of your cancer and may include one or more of the following:


To help reduce your chances of esophageal cancer:

  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit .
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation. Moderate alcohol intake 2 drinks or less per day for men and 1 drink or less per day for women.
  • Eat a healthful diet that includes fruits and vegetables, and foods high in dietary fiber, and less dairy, processed foods, and red meat.
  • Exercise regularly—Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Increased activity is associated with bigger reductions in risk.
  • Get medical treatment for GERD.
  • If you are overweight or obese, talk with your doctor or a dietitian about losing weight.
  • Talk with your doctor HPV to prevent HPV infection.

This type of cancer is usually detected in later stages. People who have risk factors, especially GERD or Barrett esophagus, should talk to their doctor about screening tests. Screening tests will look for cancer before symptoms appear.


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