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Cancer of the oesophagus is becoming more common in Europe and North America. Around 8,100 people in the UK are diagnosed each year.
The exact causes of oesophageal cancer aren’t fully understood. It appears to be more common in people who have long-term acid reflux (backflow of stomach acid into the oesophagus|). This can occur when people have conditions such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).
Damage to the oesophagus caused by acid reflux can lead to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus|. In this condition, abnormal cells develop in the lining of the lower end of the oesophagus. It’s not a cancer, but a small number of people (around 1 in 200) with Barrett’s oesophagus may go on to develop cancer.
There are other factors that can affect the risk of developing cancer of the oesophagus:
It’s more common in men than in women.
The risk of developing oesophageal cancer increases as we get older. It occurs most commonly in people over 45.
The longer a person smokes for and the more tobacco they smoke, the greater their risk of developing oesophageal cancer. All types of smoking are harmful, but it’s more damaging to smoke cigarettes than a pipe or cigars. We have information that might help you to give up smoking|.
Drinking a lot of alcohol over a long period of time increases your risk. People who drink alcohol, and who also smoke, may have a greater risk of developing cancer of the oesophagus.
Having a diet high in animal fats and low in fresh fruit and vegetables is linked to an increased risk of oesophageal cancer.
Being overweight is associated with a higher risk of oesophageal cancer. This is thought to be because long-term acid reflux is more common in people who are overweight.
Radiotherapy to the chest area can increase your risk, although this is a very rare cause of oesophageal cancer.
Other conditions affecting the oesophagus may also increase the risk of cancer:
This is a condition where the muscle that controls the opening between the oesophagus and the stomach doesn’t relax properly. This condition increases the risk of oesophageal cancer.
This is a rare inherited skin condition. People with tylosis have a high risk of developing oesophageal cancer.
In most people, cancer of the oesophagus isn’t caused by an inherited faulty gene. Therefore it’s unlikely that your children will develop oesophageal cancer as a result of you having it.
Oesophageal cancer is not infectious and can’t be passed from one person to another.
Content last reviewed: 1 July 2012
Next planned review: 2014
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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