Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER

Esophageal Cancer Prevention (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 06/07/2013

General Information About Esophageal Cancer



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 in the inside lining of the esophagus and spreads outward through the other layers as it grows.

Enlarge
Gastrointestinal (digestive) system anatomy; shows esophagus, liver, stomach, large intestine, and small intestine.
The stomach and esophagus are part of the upper digestive system.


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

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that begins in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining 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 (secretory) cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the esophagus produce and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas usually start in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about esophageal cancer:

Esophageal cancer is found more often in men.

Men are about three times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer. The chance of developing esophageal cancer increases with age. Squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus is more common in blacks than in whites.

In the United States, the rates of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus have increased in the last 20 years. It is now more common than squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. The rates of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus are decreasing.