Esophageal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version

General Information About Esophageal Cancer

Two histologic types account for the majority of malignant esophageal neoplasms: adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Adenocarcinomas typically start in the lower esophagus and squamous cell carcinoma can develop throughout the esophagus. The epidemiology of these types varies markedly.

Incidence and Mortality

Estimated new cases and deaths from esophageal cancer in the United States in 2018:[1]

  • New cases: 17,290.
  • Deaths: 15,850.

The incidence of esophageal cancer has risen in recent decades, coinciding with a shift in histologic type and primary tumor location. In the United States, squamous cell carcinoma has historically been more prevalent although the incidence of adenocarcinoma has risen dramatically in the last few decades in the United States and western Europe.[2,3] Worldwide, squamous cell carcinoma remains the predominant histology, however, adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is now more prevalent than squamous cell carcinoma in the United States and western Europe.[4] The incidence of adenocarcinoma has increased most notably among white males.[5] In the United States, the median age of patients who present with esophageal cancer is 67 years.[6] Most adenocarcinomas are located in the distal esophagus. The cause for the rising incidence and demographic alterations is unknown.


ENLARGEGastrointestinal (digestive) system anatomy; drawing shows the esophagus, liver, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.
The esophagus and stomach are part of the upper gastrointestinal (digestive) system.

The esophagus serves as a conduit to the gastrointestinal tract for food. The esophagus extends from the larynx to the stomach and lies in the posterior mediastinum within the thorax near the lung pleura, peritoneum, pericardium, and diaphragm. As it travels into the abdominal cavity, the esophagus makes an abrupt turn and enters the stomach. The esophagus is the most muscular segment of the gastrointestinal system and is composed of inner circular and outer longitudinal muscle layers. The upper and lower esophagus are controlled by the sphincter function of the cricopharyngeus muscle and gastroesophageal sphincter, respectively. The esophagus has a rich network of lymphatic channels concentrated in the lamina propria and submucosa, which drains longitudinally along the submucosa.

Tumors of the esophagus are conventionally described in terms of distance of the upper border of the tumor to the incisors. When measured from the incisors via endoscopy, the esophagus extends approximately 30 to 40 cm. The esophagus is divided into four main segments:

  1. Cervical esophagus (~15–20 cm from the incisors).
  2. Upper thoracic esophagus (~20–25 cm from the incisors).
  3. Middle thoracic esophagus (~25–30 cm from the incisors).
  4. Lower thoracic esophagus and gastroesophageal junction (~30–40 cm from the incisors).

Risk Factors

Risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus include:

  • Tobacco.
  • Alcohol.

Risk factors associated with esophageal adenocarcinoma are less clear.[3] Barrett esophagus is an exception and its presence is associated with an increased risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. Chronic reflux is considered the predominant cause of Barrett metaplasia. The results of a population-based, case-controlled study from Sweden strongly suggest that symptomatic gastroesophageal reflux is a risk factor for esophageal adenocarcinoma. The frequency, severity, and duration of reflux symptoms were positively correlated with increased risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma.[7]

(Refer to the PDQ summary on Esophageal Cancer Prevention for more information.)

Prognostic Factors

Favorable prognostic factors include the following:

  • Early-stage disease.
  • Complete resection.

Patients with severe dysplasia in distal esophageal Barrett mucosa often have in situ or invasive cancer within the dysplastic area. After resection, these patients usually have excellent prognoses.[8]

In most cases, esophageal cancer is a treatable disease, but it is rarely curable. The overall 5-year survival rate in patients amenable to definitive treatment ranges from 5% to 30%. The occasional patient with very early disease has a better chance of survival.

Related Summaries

Other PDQ summaries containing information related to esophageal cancer include the following:

For information about gastrointestinal stromal tumors, which can occur in the esophagus and are usually benign, refer to the following summary:

For information about supportive care for patients with esophageal cancer, refer to the following summaries:

  • Nutrition in Cancer Care
  • Dysphagia section in the Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation summary
  1. American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2018. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2018. Available online. Last accessed August 3, 2018.
  2. Brown LM, Devesa SS, Chow WH: Incidence of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus among white Americans by sex, stage, and age. J Natl Cancer Inst 100 (16): 1184-7, 2008. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Blot WJ, McLaughlin JK: The changing epidemiology of esophageal cancer. Semin Oncol 26 (5 Suppl 15): 2-8, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Schmassmann A, Oldendorf MG, Gebbers JO: Changing incidence of gastric and oesophageal cancer subtypes in central Switzerland between 1982 and 2007. Eur J Epidemiol 24 (10): 603-9, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Kubo A, Corley DA: Marked multi-ethnic variation of esophageal and gastric cardia carcinomas within the United States. Am J Gastroenterol 99 (4): 582-8, 2004. [PUBMED Abstract]
  6. Ginsberg RJ: Cancer treatment in the elderly. J Am Coll Surg 187 (4): 427-8, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
  7. Lagergren J, Bergström R, Lindgren A, et al.: Symptomatic gastroesophageal reflux as a risk factor for esophageal adenocarcinoma. N Engl J Med 340 (11): 825-31, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  8. Reed MF, Tolis G Jr, Edil BH, et al.: Surgical treatment of esophageal high-grade dysplasia. Ann Thorac Surg 79 (4): 1110-5; discussion 1110-5, 2005. [PUBMED Abstract]