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Esophageal cancer

Overview of esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer is cancer of the esophagus (the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach). There are two main forms of esophageal cancer. One starts in the cells lining the esophagus, and the other starts in the gland cells that produce mucus and other fluids. In the United States, esophageal cancer is not very common, accounting for only about 1 percent of all cancers.

If you are concerned about your health or want to learn more about the prevention, treatment, and causes of esophageal cancer, Find a Doctor at Dignity Health today. Visit your nearest location to receive expert care.


Painful or difficult swallowing is the most common symptom of esophageal cancer. This symptom is usually mild in the beginning. Eventually, it may be difficult to swallow even very soft foods. Other esophageal cancer symptoms include:

  • Chronic cough or hoarseness
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or behind the breastbone
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Vomiting or hiccups

These symptoms are shared with noncancerous conditions. For example, heartburn and chest pain or pressure may be symptoms of a heart attack, not esophageal cancer. Call 911 if you suspect a heart problem or any other emergency.


Experts don’t yet know what causes cancer to occur in some people but not others. What is known is that cancer is the result of damage to cells, which leads to genetic mutations. These mutations cause abnormal cells to multiply and grow, forming tumors that can eventually spread to lymph nodes and throughout the body.

Esophageal cancer involves the cells lining the esophagus or “windpipe.” Anything that leads to accumulated damage to these tissues, such as acid reflux, frequent vomiting, and smoking, increases the risk of developing this kind of cancer.


Esophageal cancer is typically described based on the type of cell growth and where it begins. Some of the most common types of esophageal cancer are:

  • Adenocarcinoma: Adenocarcinoma starts in the mucus-secreting glands lining the esophagus. This cell type is the most common in the U.S. among older white men, and most commonly affects the lower esophagus.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Squamous cells are flat, thin cells that line the surface of many organs, including the esophagus. Squamous cell cancers are cancers that originate in these cells. This type of cancer is the most prevalent esophageal cancer worldwide, though not in the U.S. It can occur anywhere in the esophagus, though it is most common in the upper and middle esophagus.
  • Other esophageal cancers: Other types of cancer can begin in or invade the esophagus, though this is very rare. These other cancers include small cell carcinoma, lymphoma, and melanoma.

Risk factors

Certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing esophageal cancer, including:

  • Achalasia, a condition in which the lower esophageal sphincter does not relax properly
  • Age of 55 or older
  • Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that results from chronic reflux
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • History of bulimia or other eating disorders
  • Male gender
  • Obesity
  • Poor nutrition
  • Tobacco and alcohol use
  • Frequently drinking very hot liquids
  • Drinking excessive alcohol


Esophageal cancer prevention strategies involve changing risk factors that are under your control. This includes stopping smoking, decreasing or stopping alcohol use, maintaining a healthy weight, and seeking treatment for conditions that can increase your risk, like Barrett’s esophagus or GERD.

Ask your Dignity Health doctor if you need help addressing these risk factors.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.