What is cancer of the esophagus?
Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?
Esophagus (or esophageal) cancer starts in the esophagus. To understand this type of cancer, it helps to know about the normal esophagus and what it does.
The esophagus is a muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. It is behind the windpipe (trachea) and in front of the spine. In adults is about 10 to 13 inches long. 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.
The lower part of the esophagus connects to the stomach at an area called the gastroesophageal (GE) junction. Here, a sphincter muscle opens to allow food to enter the stomach. This muscle also closes when a person is not eating to keep stomach acid and juices from backing up into the esophagus. Esophagus cancer
There are 2 main types of cancer of the esophagus:
Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cells line the inside layer of the esophagus. Cancer that starts in these cells can grow anywhere along the length of the esophagus. Less than half of all cancers of the esophagus are squamous cell carcinomas.
Adenocarcinoma: These cancers start in gland cells. This type of cell is not normally part of the inner lining of the esophagus. These cancers are mainly in the lower esophagus.
Adenocarcinomas that start where the esophagus joins the stomach or in 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.
Rare cancers: Other types of cancer can also start in the esophagus. But these cancers are rare and are not discussed further in this document.
Last Medical Review: 05/21/2014
Last Revised: 02/04/2016