Educational Articles

Esophageal Cancer

The esophagus is a muscular tube that moves food from the mouth to the stomach. It measures approximately 25cm in length. Esophageal cancer is a cancerous growth that occurs in the lining of this esophagus.  It is a cancer that is more common in men.


There are two types of esophageal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. The development of squamous cell carcinoma is believed to be mainly related to smoking and alcohol, while adenocarcinoma is associated with acid-reflux and a related condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. The symptoms of esophageal cancer may be non-specific, especially early on. As the disease progresses, there may be difficulty swallowing, choking, bleeding and weight loss. 

The diagnosis of esophageal cancer often involves an upper endoscopy, an examination of the upper intestinal tract using an instrument called endoscope that enables an evaluation of the inner lining of the esophagus as well as taking a biopsy or sampling of cancer tissue. Once the diagnosis of esophageal cancer is made, the staging of the disease is often determined using a radiologic examination called CT scan. It allows an initial assessment of the extent of spread of cancer. In addition, other tests that may be helpful in assessing the disease may include barium swallow and endoscopic ultrasound.

There are 4 stages of esophageal cancer. In Stage 1, the cancer is confined to the lining of the esophagus. In Stage 2, the cancer has invaded the deeper layers of esophagus and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes. In Stage 3, the cancer has penetrated the entire thickness of the esophagus wall and may have spread to nearby organs. In Stage 4 esophageal cancer, the cancer has spread to distant organs.

The staging of esophageal cancer is important since the prognosis of affected individual is highly dependent on the staging of cancer. In fact, patients with the stage 1 cancer have a 5 year survival rate of 60%, compared to only 3% for those with stage 4 cancer. 

The treatment of esophageal cancer depends mainly on the stage, size, and location of the tumor as well as the overall health of the affected individual. Treatment options may include surgery, chemotherapy, and for those with squamous cell carcinoma, radiation therapy.  In addition, an esophageal stent may provide symptom relief for those having difficulty with swallowing due to advanced cancer.



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