The most common types of esophageal cancer are adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These two forms of esophageal cancer tend to develop in different parts of the esophagus and are driven by different genetic changes. Explore the links on this page to learn more about esophageal cancer prevention, screening, treatment, statistics, research, and clinical trials.

Esophageal Cancer Treatment

  • Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the esophagus.
  • Smoking, heavy alcohol use, and Barrett esophagus can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer are weight loss and painful or difficult swallowing.
  • Tests that examine the esophagus are used to detect (find) and diagnose esophageal cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the esophagus.

The esophagus is the hollow, muscular tube that moves food and liquid from the throat to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including mucous membrane, muscle, and connective tissue. Esophageal cancer starts on the inside lining of the esophagus and spreads outward through the other layers as it grows.

The two most common forms of esophageal cancer are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancerous):

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that forms in the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the esophagus. This cancer is most often found in the upper and middle part of the esophagus, but can occur anywhere along the esophagus. This is also called epidermoid carcinoma.
  • Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in glandular cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the esophagus produce and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas usually form in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach.

Smoking, heavy alcohol use, and Barrett esophagus can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors include the following:

  • Tobacco use.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Barrett esophagus: A condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have changed or been replaced with abnormal cells that could lead to cancer of the esophagus. Gastric reflux (heartburn) is the most common cause of Barrett esophagus.
  • Older age.

See the PDQ summary on Esophageal Cancer Prevention for more information.

Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer are weight loss and painful or difficult swallowing.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by esophageal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Painful or difficult swallowing.
  • Weight loss.
  • Pain behind the breastbone.
  • Hoarseness and cough.
  • Indigestion and heartburn.
  • A lump under the skin.

Childhood Esophageal Cancer Treatment

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about esophageal cancer, see the following:

  • Esophageal Cancer Home Page
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scans and Cancer
  • Targeted Cancer Therapies
  • Nutrition in Cancer Care

For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources, see the following:

  • About Cancer
  • Childhood Cancers
  • CureSearch for Children’s CancerExit Disclaimer
  • Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer
  • Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancer
  • Children with Cancer: A Guide for Parents
  • Cancer in Children and Adolescents
  • Staging
  • Coping with Cancer
  • Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Cancer
  • For Survivors and Caregivers

Esophageal Cancer Prevention

  • Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the esophagus.
  • Esophageal cancer is found more often in men.

Esophageal Cancer Screening

  • Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer when a person does not have symptoms.
  • There is no standard or routine screening test for esophageal cancer.
    • Esophagoscopy
    • Biopsy
    • Brush cytology
    • Balloon cytology
    • Chromoendoscopy
    • Fluorescence spectroscopy
  • Screening tests for esophageal cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Esophageal cancer is found more often in men.

Men are about three times more likely than women to have esophageal cancer. There are more new cases of esophageal adenocarcinoma each year and fewer new cases of squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus is found more often in blacks than in whites. The chance of developing esophageal cancer increases with age.

What is Cancer?

  • Cancer can start almost anywhere in the human body, which is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, human cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

  • Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the risk of getting cancer. This can include maintaining a healthy lifestyle, avoiding exposure to known cancer-causing substances, and taking medicines or vaccines that can prevent cancer from developing.

  • Cancer can cause many different symptoms. Most often these symptoms are not caused by cancer, but by benign tumors or other problems. If you have symptoms that last for a couple of weeks, your doctor will do a physical exam and order tests or other procedures to find out what is causing your symptoms.