Esophageal Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Esophageal Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

About the esophagus

The esophagus is a 10-inch long, hollow, muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. It is part of a person’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. When a person swallows, the walls of the esophagus squeeze together to push food down into the stomach.

About esophageal cancer

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread. Esophageal cancer, also called esophagus cancer, begins in the cells that line the esophagus.

Specifically, cancer of the esophagus begins in the inner layer of the esophageal wall and grows outward. If it spreads through the esophageal wall, it can travel to lymph nodes, which are the tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection, as well as the blood vessels in the chest and other nearby organs. Esophageal cancer can also spread to the lungs, liver, stomach, and other parts of the body.

Types of esophageal cancer

There are 2 major types of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This type of esophageal cancer starts in squamous cells that line the esophagus. It usually develops in the upper and middle part of the esophagus.

  • Adenocarcinoma. This type begins in the glandular tissue in the lower part of the esophagus where the esophagus and the stomach come together.

Treatment is similar for both of these types of esophageal cancer. Other, very rare tumors of the esophagus, which make up less than 1% of esophageal cancers, include small cell neuroendocrine cancers, lymphomas, and sarcoma.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore this related item. Please note this link will take you to another section on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to this type of cancer. This fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain how many people are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.