What is cancer of the esophagus?
The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. It lies behind the windpipe (trachea) and in front of the spine and in adults is about 10-13 inches long. At its smallest point, it is a little less than one inch wide. It carries food and liquids to the stomach.
The wall of the esophagus has several layers. Cancer of the esophagus starts in the inner layer and grows outward into deeper layers.
In the lower part of the esophagus that connects to the stomach, a sphincter muscle opens to allow food to enter the stomach. This muscle also closes to keep stomach acid and juices from backing up into the esophagus. When stomach juices escape into the esophagus, it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or just reflux. In many cases, reflux can cause symptoms such as heartburn or a burning feeling spreading out from the middle of the chest. But sometimes, reflux can happen without any symptoms at all.
Long-term reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus can lead to problems. It can change the cells in the lower end of the esophagus. They become more like the cells that line the stomach. When these cells change, the person has a condition called Barrett's esophagus. These altered cells can change into cancer, so the person has a much higher risk of cancer of the esophagus and should be closely watched by a doctor. Still, most people with Barrett's esophagus do not go on to get cancer of the esophagus.
There are 2 main types of cancer of the esophagus. One type grows in the cells that form the inside layer of the lining of the esophagus. These are called squamous cells, and cancer that starts there is called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell cancer can grow anywhere along the length of the esophagus. It accounts for less than half of all cancers of the esophagus.
Cancers that start in gland cells are called adenocarcinomas. This type of cell is not normally part of the inner lining of the esophagus. Before an adenocarcinoma can develop, glandular cells must replace an area of squamous cells. This happens in Barrett's esophagus, so these cancers are mainly in the lower esophagus.
Cancers that start at the place where the esophagus joins the stomach (called the GE junction) or the first part of the stomach tend to behave like esophagus cancers (and are treated like them, as well), so they are grouped with esophagus cancers.
Last Medical Review: 12/26/2012
Last Revised: 12/26/2012