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About Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the tissues of the esophagus, or the tube that takes food from the mouth to the stomach. The most common types of esophageal cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer:

  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Pain behind the breastbone
  • Hoarseness and cough
  • Indigestion and heartburn

Many other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about esophageal cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Image of the Esophagus

The esophagus and stomach are part of the upper gastrointestinal (digestive) system.
The esophagus and stomach are part of the upper gastrointestinal (digestive) system.

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient has depends on the stage of the cancer, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment for esophageal cancer:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancers Program provides comprehensive, compassionate, state-of-the-art care for cancers of the digestive system. Our experts treat and diagnose all types of GI cancers and conditions.

Learn more about types of cancer treatments and about cancer screenings.

Find an Esophageal Cancer Doctor

Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk.

The chance of getting esophageal cancer increases with age. These are other risk factors of esophageal cancer:

  • Tobacco use
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Barrett esophagus, a disease of the lower esophagus caused by acid reflux over time

Learn more about ways to prevent cancer and about family history and genetic counseling.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnosis of Esophageal Cancer

Doctors use these tests to diagnose esophageal cancer:

  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider examines your body for signs of disease. Your personal health habits, past illnesses, and symptoms help guide the exam.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray shows an image of the organs and bones in the chest.
  • Barium swallow: After swallowing a liquid that contains barium, which improves the image quality, health care providers take x-rays to look for anything unusual in the esophagus.
  • Esophagoscopy: Using a lighted scope inserted through the mouth or nose, the health care provider looks at the esophagus for anything unusual. If anything is found, the provider will remove some cells to test for cancer.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Esophageal Cancer

Stages of cancer show whether cancer has spread within the esophagus or to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

These are the stages used for esophageal cancer:

  • Stage 0: For stage 0 esophageal cancer, tests have found abnormal cells on the inside of the esophagus.
  • Stage 1 (1A,1B): Cancer has formed and grown into the wall of the esophagus.
  • Stage 2 (2A, 2B): Cancer has grown deep into the wall of the esophagus and may be found in 1 or 2 lymph nodes close to the tumor.
  • Stage 3 (3A, 3B, 3C): Cancer has spread into nearby lymph nodes and organs.
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to organs away from the esophagus such as the liver or lungs.

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if esophageal cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually esophageal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic esophageal cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about stages of esophageal cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

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