Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up all tissues and organs of the body, including the esophagus.
Normal cells in the esophagus and other parts of the body grow and divide to form new cells as they are needed. 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 doesn't need them, and old or damaged cells don't die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.
- Benign tumors:
- Are rarely a threat to life
- Don't invade the tissues around them
- Don't spread to other parts of the body
- Can be removed and don't usually grow back
- Malignant tumors (cancer of the esophagus):
- May be a threat to life
- Can invade and damage nearby organs and tissues
- Can spread to other parts of the body
- Sometimes can be removed but may grow back
Esophageal cancer cells can spread by breaking away from an esophageal tumor. They can travel through blood vessels or lymph vessels to reach other parts of the body. After spreading, cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues.
When esophageal cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the original tumor. For example, if esophageal cancer spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are actually esophageal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic esophageal cancer, not liver cancer. For that reason, it is treated as cancer of the esophagus, not liver cancer.