About Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is cancer in the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. This tube is called the esophagus.

Muscles at the bottom of the esophagus usually hold it closed so food and liquids do not flow back from the stomach into the esophagus. But this sometimes happens anyway. When it does, it causes acid reflux (heartburn). Having acid reflux for a long time can cause a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. If Barrett’s esophagus is not treated, it increases the risk of esophageal cancer.

There are two common types of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This type starts in the cells lining the esophagus. It usually happens in the upper and middle part of the esophagus, but can appear anywhere along it.
  • Adenocarcinoma: This type starts in the cells that make and release mucus and other fluids. It usually starts in the lower esophagus, closer to the stomach.

Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

Symptoms of esophageal cancer can include:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • A feeling that food is stuck in the chest (some people switch to softer foods because of this feeling)
  • Pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades
  • Losing a lot of weight without trying
  • Hoarseness or cough that lasts longer than two weeks
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing up blood
  • Heartburn

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Many other conditions can cause these symptoms, and you might have different symptoms.

There is no routine screening test for esophageal cancer. If you have Barrett's esophagus or frequent acid reflux that is difficult to treat with medication, talk to your doctor. You need exams more often than most people do because you have a higher risk of esophageal cancer.