Esophageal cancer is cancer that occurs in the esophagus — a long, hollow tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. Your esophagus helps move the food you swallow from the back of your throat to your stomach to be digested.

Esophageal cancer usually begins in the cells that line the inside of the esophagus. Esophageal cancer can occur anywhere along the esophagus. More men than women get esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Incidence rates vary within different geographic locations. In some regions, higher rates of esophageal cancer may be attributed to tobacco and alcohol use or particular nutritional habits and obesity.



Types of esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer is classified according to the type of cells that are involved. The type of esophageal cancer you have helps determine your treatment options. Types of esophageal cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma begins in the cells of mucus-secreting glands in the esophagus. Adenocarcinoma occurs most often in the lower portion of the esophagus. Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of esophageal cancer in the United States, and it affects primarily white men.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. The squamous cells are flat, thin cells that line the surface of the esophagus. Squamous cell carcinoma occurs most often in the upper and middle portions of the esophagus. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most prevalent esophageal cancer worldwide.
  • Other rare types. Some rare forms of esophageal cancer include small cell carcinoma, sarcoma, lymphoma, melanoma and choriocarcinoma.



Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer include:

  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Weight loss without trying
  • Chest pain, pressure or burning
  • Worsening indigestion or heartburn
  • Coughing or hoarseness

Early esophageal cancer typically causes no signs or symptoms.


It's not exactly clear what causes esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer occurs when cells in the esophagus develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. The changes make cells grow and divide out of control. The accumulating abnormal cells form a tumor in the esophagus that can grow to invade nearby structures and spread to other parts of the body.

Risk factors

It's thought that chronic irritation of your esophagus may contribute to the changes that cause esophageal cancer. Factors that cause irritation in the cells of your esophagus and increase your risk of esophageal cancer include:

  • Having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Smoking
  • Having precancerous changes in the cells of the esophagus (Barrett's esophagus)
  • Being obese
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Having bile reflux
  • Having difficulty swallowing because of an esophageal sphincter that won't relax (achalasia)
  • Having a steady habit of drinking very hot liquids
  • Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
  • Undergoing radiation treatment to the chest or upper abdomen


As esophageal cancer advances, it can cause complications, such as:

  • Obstruction of the esophagus. Cancer may make it difficult for food and liquid to pass through your esophagus.
  • Pain. Advanced esophageal cancer can cause pain.
  • Bleeding in the esophagus. Esophageal cancer can cause bleeding. Though bleeding is usually gradual, it can be sudden and severe at times.


Tests and procedures used to diagnose esophageal cancer include:

  • Barium swallow study. During this study, you swallow a liquid that includes barium and then undergo X-rays. The barium coats the inside of your esophagus, which then shows any changes to the tissue on the X-ray.
  • Using a scope to examine your esophagus (endoscopy). During endoscopy, your doctor passes a flexible tube equipped with a video lens (videoendoscope) down your throat and into your esophagus. Using the endoscope, your doctor examines your esophagus, looking for cancer or areas of irritation.
  • Collecting a sample of tissue for testing (biopsy). Your doctor may use a special scope passed down your throat into your esophagus (endoscope) to collect a sample of suspicious tissue (biopsy). The tissue sample is sent to a laboratory to look for cancer cells.

Determining the extent of the cancer

Once a diagnosis of esophageal cancer is confirmed, your doctor may recommend additional tests to determine whether your cancer has spread to your lymph nodes or to other areas of your body.

Tests may include:

  • Bronchoscopy
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)
  • Computerized tomography (CT)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)

Your doctor uses the information from these procedures to assign a stage to your cancer. The stages of esophageal cancer are indicated by Roman numerals that range from 0 to IV, with the lowest stages indicating that the cancer is small and affects only the superficial layers of your esophagus. By stage IV, the cancer is considered advanced and has spread to other areas of the body.

The cancer staging system continues to evolve and is becoming more complex as doctors improve cancer diagnosis and treatment. Your doctor uses your cancer stage to select the treatments that are right for you.




You can take steps to reduce your risk of esophageal cancer. For instance:

  • Quit smoking. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies for quitting. Medications and counseling are available to help you quit. If you don't use tobacco, don't start.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. Add a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to your diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight or obese, talk to your doctor about strategies to help you lose weight. Aim for a slow and steady weight loss of 1 or 2 pounds a week.



Did you know that there are certain foods that can lower the risk of developing esophageal cancer? Read more to find out which foods can help you achieve this.


Tea, especially green tea has powerful anti-oxidization properties that help protect you from esophageal cancer. Black tea is also a good source of these anti-oxidants so if you cannot access green tea, you can still get the same protection from the normal tea. Various studies have shown that people who regularly consume tea are less likely to develop cancer than those who don’t. This is because anti-oxidants in tea help prevent cell damage by unstable molecules known as free radicals. These free radicals are stabilized when they interact with anti-oxidants and rendered harmless.


Vegetables have long been known to have a host of benefits to the body. A diet that is rich in vegetables is usually low in calories and thus prevents risk factors such as obesity. Secondly, particular vegetables such as Kales, Brussel sprouts, and many others contain nutrients that help protect the body from many different types of cancers including cancer of the esophagus.  Ensure that you eat vegetables in every serving and vary the type of vegetable you take in order to tap into the health benefits of various types of vegetables.


Just like vegetables, fruits have massive benefits to the body and their consumption can significantly lower the risk of cancer. Firstly, fructose that is found in fruits is a healthier alternative to processed sugar that is found in food items such as fizzy drinks and cakes. Secondly, fruits are generally rich in nutrients, vitamins, and anti-oxidants, all of which contribute to minimizing cell mutations that lead to esophageal cancer. When selecting which fruits to take, focus on fruits that do not have high citric acid content. Fruits such as mangoes, bananas, peaches, and avocados have low or no citric acid and thus are great to include in your day-to-day diet. While you can take citric fruits (fruits high in citric acid), keep the intake of these at a minimum.


Whole grain foods are an excellent addition to any diet but are particularly powerful at preventing esophageal cancer. This is because food items with whole grains are rich in fiber that is known to lower the risk of cancer as well as help an individual maintain healthy body weight. Food items that are rich in fiber include oats, sweet potatoes among others. Others include rye and other whole grain foods.


In tests conducted on mice, scientists found that feeding black or navy beans to mice lowered their risk of developing cancer. It has also been observed that there is a lowered incidence of esophageal cancer among people who primarily eat plant protein (such as beans) as opposed to animal protein.  A few servings of beans in a diet every week can provide excellent protection against the occurrence of this type of cancer.



For years, cinnamon has been known as a super-food whose anti-inflammation properties lower the risk of various types of cancers including cancer of the esophagus. In addition to this, cinnamon reduces blood sugar and promotes the overall health of the body. You can tap into the health benefits of cinnamon by adding one or two teaspoons of cinnamon every day to help protect you from esophageal cancer.


Nuts are excellent sources of fiber, vitamins and many other nutrients. They have also been identified as having cancer-fighting properties. In addition, nuts are great at helping one maintain healthy eating habits as they are a healthy substitute to snacking. Nuts also help an individual eat less food as they have a filling effect. To tap into the cancer-fighting benefits of nuts, ensure that you take a handful of nuts every day especially as a replacement to your usual snack.


Olive oil is one of the central tenets of the Mediterranean diet and is generally regarded as a very healthy food. Studies around the world indicate that countries with high consumption of olive oil tend to have significantly reduced incidences of cancers including esophageal cancer. You can tap into the benefits of olive oil by substituting your usual cooking oil with olive oil. Alternatively, you can use olive oil as a marinade for meat or as part of your salad dressing.


Turmeric is another food that has long been associated with improved health. This is because it has both anti-oxidization and anti-inflammatory properties, all of which help lower the incidence of cancers such as esophageal cancer. You can add turmeric to food as a spice and can boost its absorption in the body by combining it with a dash of black pepper.


Although these foods do not offer a guarantee that one will not develop the condition, they do significantly lower the risk of occurrence. Other things that you can do to keep esophageal cancer at bay include reducing (or completely eliminating) the consumption of alcohol and tobacco products. Apart from nutrition, it is important to focus on holistic wellness and incorporate physical exercise in one’s lifestyle.

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