Do we know what causes cancer of the esophagus?
We do not yet know exactly what causes most esophageal cancers. However, there are certain risk factors that make getting esophageal cancer more likely (see the section, "What are the risk factors for cancer of the esophagus?").
Scientists believe that some risk factors, such as the use of tobacco or alcohol, may cause esophageal cancer by damaging the DNA of cells that line the inside of the esophagus. Long-term irritation of the lining of the esophagus, as happens with reflux, Barrett's esophagus, achalasia, esophageal webs, or scarring from swallowing lye, may also lead to DNA damage.
DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes – the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. However, DNA affects more than how we look. Some genes have instructions for controlling when cells grow and divide. Genes that promote cell division are called oncogenes. Genes that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.
The DNA of esophageal cancer cells often shows changes in many different genes. However, it's not clear if there are specific gene changes that can be found in all (or most) cases of this cancer.
Last Medical Review: 12/10/2012
Last Revised: 01/18/2013