What is the esophagus?
The esophagus is in the chest. It's about 10 inches long. This organ is part of the digestive tract. Food moves from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach. The esophagus is a muscular tube.
The wall of the esophagus has several layers:
Inner layer or lining (mucosa): The lining of the esophagus is moist so that food can pass to the stomach.
Submucosa: The glands in this layer make mucus. Mucus keeps the esophagus moist.
Muscle layer: The muscles push the food down to the stomach.
Outer layer: The outer layer covers the esophagus.
Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body. Normal cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.
Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old or damaged cells do not die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.
Growths in the wall of the esophagus can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). The smooth inner wall may have an abnormal rough area, an area of tiny bumps, or a tumor. Benign growths are not as harmful as malignant growths:
- are rarely a threat to life
- can be removed and probably won't grow back
- don't invade the tissues around them
- don't spread to other parts of the body
- may be a threat to life sometimes
- can be removed but can grow back
- can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs
- can spread to other parts of the body
Esophageal cancer begins in cells in the inner layer of the esophagus. Over time, the cancer may invade more deeply into the esophagus and nearby tissues.
Cancer cells can spread by breaking away from the original tumor. They may enter blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into all the tissues of the body. The cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues. The spread of cancer cells is called metastasis. See the Staging section for information about esophageal cancer that has spread.
Types of Esophageal Cancer
There are two main types of esophageal cancer. Both types are diagnosed, treated, and managed in similar ways.
The two most common types are named for how the cancer cells look under a microscope. Both types begin in cells in the inner lining of the esophagus:
Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus: This type is usually found in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach. In the United States, adenocarcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer. It's been increasing since the 1970s.
Squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus: This type is usually found in the upper part of the esophagus. This type is becoming less common among Americans. Around the world, however, squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type.
When you get a diagnosis of cancer, it's natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. Doctors can seldom explain why one person develops esophageal cancer and another doesn't. However, we do know that people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop esophageal cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease.
Studies have found the following risk factors for esophageal cancer:
Age 65 or older: Age is the main risk factor for esophageal cancer. The chance of getting this disease goes up as you get older. In the United States, most people are 65 years of age or older when they are diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
Being male: In the United States, men are more than three times as likely as women to develop esophageal cancer.
Smoking: People who smoke are more likely than people who don't smoke to develop esophageal cancer.
Heavy drinking: People who have more than 3 alcoholic drinks each day are more likely than people who don't drink to develop squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. Heavy drinkers who smoke are at a much higher risk than heavy drinkers who don't smoke. In other words, these two factors act together to increase the risk even more.
Diet: Studies suggest that having a diet that's low in fruits and vegetables may increase the risk of esophageal cancer. However, results from diet studies don't always agree, and more research is needed to better understand how diet affects the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Obesity: Being obese increases the risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
Acid reflux: Acid reflux is the abnormal backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus. Reflux is very common. A symptom of reflux is heartburn, but some people don't have symptoms. The stomach acid can damage the tissue of the esophagus. After many years of reflux, this tissue damage may lead to adenocarcinoma of the esophagus in some people.
Barrett esophagus: Acid reflux may damage the esophagus and over time cause a condition known as Barrett esophagus. The cells in the lower part of the esophagus are abnormal. Most people who have Barrett esophagus don't know it. The presence of Barrett esophagus increases the risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. It's a greater risk factor than acid reflux alone. Many other possible risk factors (such as smokeless tobacco) have been studied. Researchers continue to study these possible risk factors.
Having a risk factor doesn't mean that a person will develop cancer of the esophagus.
Most people who have risk factors never develop esophageal cancer.
Early esophageal cancer may not cause symptoms. As the cancer grows, the most common symptoms are:
- Food gets stuck in the esophagus, and food may come back up
- Pain when swallowing
- Pain in the chest or back
- Weight loss
- A hoarse voice or cough that doesn't go away within 2 weeks
These symptoms may be caused by esophageal cancer or other health problems. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
If you have a symptom that suggests esophageal cancer, your doctor must find out whether it's really due to cancer or to some other cause. The doctor gives you a physical exam and asks about your personal and family health history. You may have blood tests. You also may have:
Barium swallow: After you drink a barium solution, you have x-rays taken of your esophagus and stomach. The barium solution makes your esophagus show up more clearly on the x-rays. This test is also called an upper GI series.
Endoscopy: The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) to look down your esophagus. The doctor first numbs your throat with an anesthetic spray, and you may also receive medicine to help you relax. The tube is passed through your mouth or nose to the esophagus. The doctor may also call this procedure upper endoscopy, EGD, or esophagoscopy.
Biopsy: Usually, cancer begins in the inner layer of the esophagus. The doctor uses an endoscope to remove tissue from the esophagus. A pathologist checks the tissue under a microscope for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only sure way to know if cancer cells are present.
People with esophageal cancer have several treatment options. The options are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments. For example, radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be given before or after surgery.
The treatment that's right for you depends mainly on the following:
- where the cancer is located within the esophagus
- whether the cancer has invaded nearby structures
- whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other organs
- your symptoms
- your general health
Esophageal cancer is hard to control with current treatments. For that reason, many doctors encourage people with this disease to consider taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods. Clinical trials are an important option for people with all stages of esophageal cancer. See the Taking Part in Cancer Research section.
You may have a team of specialists to help plan your treatment. Your doctor may refer you to specialists, or you may ask for a referral. You may want to see a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in treating problems of the digestive organs. Other specialists who treat esophageal cancer include thoracic (chest) surgeons, thoracic surgical oncologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. Your health care team may also include an oncology nurse and a registered dietitian. If your airways are affected by the cancer, you may have a respiratory therapist as part of your team. If you have trouble swallowing, you may see a speech pathologist.
Your health care team can describe your treatment choices, the expected results of each, and the possible side effects. Because cancer therapy often damages healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Before treatment starts, ask your health care team about possible side effects and how treatment may change your normal activities. You and your health care team can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.