Esophagus Cancer Overview

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Staging of esophagus cancer

The stage of a cancer describes how far it has spread. This is very important because your treatment and the outlook for your recovery depend a lot on the stage of your cancer.

Cancer of the esophagus is staged using the results of the tests described in the section “How is cancer of the esophagus found?

A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to describe the extent of the cancer. The most common staging system for esophagus cancer is the AJCC staging system. It uses several key pieces of information:

  • T is how far the main tumor has grown into the wall of the esophagus and into nearby organs.
  • N describes the spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • M tells whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body.
  • G describes the grade of the cancer, which is based on how the patterns of cancer cells look under a microscope.

Staging also takes into account the cell type of the cancer (squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma). For squamous cell cancers, the place where the tumor is found can also be a factor in staging.

The T, N, M, and G categories are combined to get an overall stage, using the number zero (0) and the Roman numerals I through IV (1 - 4). The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV (4), means a more advanced cancer.

Stages provide a detailed summary of how far the cancer has spread. But for treatment purposes, doctors are often more concerned about whether the cancer is resectable or not – that is, whether it can be completely removed (resected) with surgery. Early stage cancers are more likely to be resectable.

After looking at your test results, the doctor will tell you the stage of your cancer. Staging for esophageal cancer can be confusing, so be sure to ask your doctor to explain your stage in a way you understand. This will help you both decide on the best treatment for you.

Survival rates for cancer of the esophagus by stage

Some people with cancer may want to know the survival rates for their type of cancer. Others may not find the numbers helpful, or may even not want to know them. If you decide that you don’t want to know them, stop reading here and skip to the next section.

The 5-year survival rate is the percentage of patients who are alive 5 years after diagnosis. Five-year relative survival rates compare the number of people who are still alive 5 years after their cancer was found to the survival of others the same age who don’t have cancer. This is a better way to see the impact that cancer can have on survival. Of course, patients might live more than 5 years after their cancer is found.

Survival rates for esophagus cancer are grouped in terms of localized, regional, and distant. Localized means that the cancer is only growing in the esophagus. Regional means that the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues. Distant means that the cancer has spread to organs or lymph nodes away from the esophagus.


    5-Year Relative Survival Rate








These numbers do not separate squamous cell carcinomas from adenocarcinomas, although adenocarcinomas are generally thought to have a slightly better outlook (prognosis) overall.

While these numbers give you an overall picture, keep in mind that everyone is unique and statistics can’t predict what will happen with you. Talk with your cancer care team if you have questions about your own chances of a cure, or how long you might expect to live. They know your situation best.

Last Medical Review: 05/21/2014
Last Revised: 11/06/2014