What Is Esophageal Cancer?

To help you understand what is happening when you have cancer, it helps to understand how your body works normally. Our bodies are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow and multiply when the body needs them and die out when the body does not need them.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells. These cells grow whether they are needed or not.

Esophageal cancer is cancer that begins in the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that carries food and liquid from the throat to the stomach. In adults, the esophagus is about 10 inches long. Cancer can develop in any part of the esophagus.

There are 2 types of esophageal cancer. They are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. They are named based on the cells in which the cancer starts. Squamous cell carcinomas can start anywhere along the esophagus, whereas adenocarcinomas typically start in the lower part of the esophagus. The cancer's exact location is an important part of choosing treatment and predicting how well it will work.

How esophageal cancer grows

Tumors typically start in the inner lining of the esophagus (called the mucosa) and will gradually narrow the opening of the esophagus, which is called the lumen. This causes increasing problems with swallowing. Cancer can also spread through the wall of the esophagus to the surrounding tissues, such as nearby lymph nodes, or to the trachea (windpipe). 

If the cancer spreads to nearby structures outside the esophagus, it usually shows up in 1 or more of these places:

  • Diaphragm (thin breathing muscle below the lungs)

  • Pericardium (sac around the heart)

  • Pleura (tissue that covers the lungs)

  • Lymph nodes, which are small collections of immune cells throughout the body that help fight infection. 

  • Trachea (windpipe)

  • Large blood vessels in the chest

  • Spine

Sometimes cancer from the esophagus spreads to distant parts of the body, too. (This is known as metastasis.):

  • Liver

  • Lung

  • Bone

  • Brain

Less often, esophageal cancer spreads to these areas:     

  • Kidneys

  • Adrenal glands

  • Lining of the abdomen

  • Skin