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Esophageal Cancer Overview

The esophagus is a muscular tube in the chest. It’s about 10 inches (25 centimeters) long. This organ is part of the digestive tract. Food moves from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach.

Normal cells in the esophagus and other parts of the body grow and divide to form new cells as they are needed. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.
Cancer begins in cells of the esophagus when this process goes wrong:
  • New cells form when the body doesn’t need them
  • Old or damaged cells do not die as they should. 

The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.  A tumor in the esophagus can be “benign” or “malignant”:

  • Benign tumors:

    • Are NOT cancer.
    • Are rarely a threat to life.
    • Do not invade the tissues around them.
    • Do not spread to other parts of the body.
    • Can be removed and do not  usually grow back.
  • Malignant tumors:

    • Are cancer.
    • May be a threat to life.
    • Can invade and damage nearby organs and tissues.
    • Can spread to other parts of the body.
    • Sometimes can be removed but may grow back.


Types of Esophageal Cancer

The two most common types are named for how the cancer cells look under a microscope:

AC:  In the United States, AC – or “adenocarcinoma” is the most common type of esophageal cancer. Usually, AC tumors are found in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach. AC of the esophagus may be related to:

  • having acid reflux, which is the backward flow of stomach acid
  • having a disease of the lower esophagus known as Barrett esophagus
  • being obese.

SCC:  In other parts of the world, SCC – or “squamous cell carcinoma” – is the most common type of esophageal cancer. Usually, SCC tumors are found in the upper part of the esophagus. SCC of the esophagus may be related to being a heavy drinker of alcohol or smoking tobacco.

If you smoke, talk with an expert about quitting. It is never too late to quit. Quitting can help cancer treatments work better. It may also reduce the chance of getting another cancer.

To get help with quitting smoking…

  • Go online to (
  • Call NCI’s Smoking Quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848).
  • Sign up for the free mobile service SmokefreeTXT to get tips and encouragement to quit. To sign up, text the word QUIT to IQUIT (47848)from your mobile phone. Or, go to


Cancer Treatment Research

Cancer research has led to advances that have helped people with esophageal cancer live longer, and doctors continue to search for new and better ways to treat this disease.

All over the world, doctors are conducting many types of cancer treatment research studies (clinical trials). In the United States, NCI sponsors studies with people who have esophageal cancer, including studies of the combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy.

Even if people taking part in a clinical trial don’t benefit directly from the treatment under study, they may still make an important contribution by helping doctors learn more about esophageal cancer and how to control it. Although clinical trials may pose some risks, researchers do all they can to protect their patients.

If you are interested in being part of a clinical trial, talk with your doctor. You may want to read the NCI booklet Taking Part in Cancer Treatment Research Studies. It describes how treatment studies are carried out and explains their possible benefits and risks.
NCI’s website has a section on clinical trials at You can learn about…

  • How your safety is protected
  • Who pays for clinical trials
  • What to think about if you’d like to take part in a clinical trial
  • What to ask your doctor

Also, you can get detailed information about specific ongoing studies of esophageal cancer on NCI’s website.

In addition, NCI’s Cancer Information Service can answer your questions and provide information about clinical trials. Contact CIS at 1-800-4-CANCER ( or at LiveHelp(



What You Need to Know About Cancer of the Esophagus (National Cancer Institute)


For more information:

Go to the Esophageal Cancer health topic.